Disposal of the Dead: The Intersection of Death & Technology

We’ve all thought about death in one way or another at some point in our lives. Thinking about death is an inescapable part of living. Fallon Mody recently caught up with the interdisciplinary group of Melbourne-based researchers – including our own Associate Professor Mike Arnold from History & Philosophy of Science at SHAPS – who think about death for a living. This team, the Death Tech Research Network, are currently investigating the intersection of death and new technologies in how Australians dispose of the dead. That is, they are researching innovative and scalable alternatives to traditional body disposal in the West, which has long been centred on burial and cremation. Why is this of national interest, you might wonder? Australians, we find out, are increasingly aware and interested in new death technologies. As our population ages, more and more Australians are considering the economic, social and environmental implications of burial and cremation.

Content advisory: this article includes discussion of and related to death, dying, and disposal of the dead that some readers might find upsetting or disturbing.

Tell us more about the scope of the ARC Discovery Project, Disposal of the dead: beyond burial and cremation.

Disposal of the Dead is the second ARC-funded project for the Death Tech Research Network, and shifts our focus away from new ways of commemorating the dead to new ways of disposing of their bodily remains. Specifically, we are interested in the potential of real-world technologies from around the world that are seeking to displace burial and cremation, and how they might be applied to death in Australia.

Some of the most prominent and plausible new tech includes alkaline hydrolysis or “water cremation”, in which the body is submersed in a water-sodium hydroxide solution and heated under pressure to break the body down to fundamental elements. Another new process is recomposition or “human compositing”, in which the decomposition process of burial is sped up. As well as alternative technology, we are also interested in elaborations – or new developments – on existing burial and cremation processes, such as natural burial or “woodland burial”, and carbon capture from crematoria.

Our researchers include anthropologists, social scientists and human-computer interaction specialists, and we examine death tech from a number of perspectives.

The interdisciplinary nature of the research team is quite striking. Is that common in “death studies”?

It’s a cliché, but death does come for us all, and as an academic subject it cuts through many disciplinary divides. The future of death and dying in Australia is also an issue that can only be solved through interdisciplinary collaboration.

That being said, truly interdisciplinary research teams are still somewhat of a rarity. Translating ideas between disciplines can be a challenge, but ultimately we’ve found that it produces work that is more rigorous and publicly accessible.

If someone were to ask you why this project is important for Australia and to Australians, what would you say?

Our treatment of the dead is not only a personal decision – it’s increasingly becoming a pressing social issue for Australia in the twenty-first century. Australia will soon enter a period known as “peak death”, when more people are dying than ever before. This is because our most populous generation remains the 5.5 million Baby Boomers, born between 1946-66, who are now ageing and dying.

We are approaching this moment in a time when environmental concerns are at a crisis point, there are increased demands on urban space (for the living and the dead), and traditional religious responses to death hold less sway. Although we may try to avoid thinking about death in our everyday lives, how we treat the dying and dead is a vast and complex social problem that needs our attention – if for no other reason than we’d all like to die well!

Crypt with plaques to commemorate the dead, New Orleans, United States. Photograph © Death Tech Network
Crypt with plaques to commemorate the dead, New Orleans, United States. Photograph © Death Tech Network

What are three little-known facts about death tech that surprise people when you talk to them about it?

We are often surprised at how little people know about what happens to the body when somebody dies.

Firstly, in Australia, a person’s wishes with respect to the disposal of their body are not legally binding, even where they are specified in a will or other document. Instead, the person responsible for the body can choose the disposal method they wish, within the law and within reason – and very few options are legal (so no backyard burial!).

Secondly, dead bodies are not necessarily “good” for the environment. People often describe their ideal burial as being laid to rest under a large oak tree, but corpses go through different stages of decomposition, and often leach high levels of nitrogen that can (initially at least) kill plant life, before creating fertile ground. This means that different technologies and techniques of disposal (burial, cremation, etc.) need to be used.

Thirdly, in Victoria, burial sites are held in perpetuity, and that puts a big strain on our urban space for cemeteries. Once remains are interred, by law, the grave has to be maintained forever, even long after the remains have broken down or disappeared.

We often talk about Australian culture, and what it means to be Australian. Is it a stretch to say we have a national “death culture”?

It’s not a stretch to say that Australia has a national “death culture” but, as a multi-cultural, multi-faith society, in which people have different levels of access to wealth and happiness, that culture is diverse. For some, burial is always going to be the preferred option, but migration from Asian countries with Vedic religious traditions – for example, Hinduism – has contributed to higher rates of cremation in Australia. Our death culture is shaped by national history and the activities of the funeral industry. For example, in comparison to the United States, dead bodies in Australia are far less likely to be embalmed.

… and in what striking ways would you say that our national death culture has changed in the last ten/twenty/fifty years?

I would say that two changes to our death culture stand out. Firstly, the overwhelming majority of Australian now die in institutions (hospitals, hospices, aged care facilities), as opposed to at home (now only about 14 percent). This contrasts with a  which found that while 70 percent of Australians want to die at home, “dying in Australia is more institutionalised than in the rest of the world”. What this statistic tells us is that as a nation, we need to face the current limitations of medical care; the ways in which we engage individuals about how they would like to die which preserves their dignity, respects their beliefs, and empowers them; as well as re-visit how Australia’s health budget is structured. Secondly, there has been a monumental rise in the number of people choosing cremation over burial – up to 65 to 70 percent. There are a number of reasons motivating this decision, but the cost and inadequate provision of grave sites plays a large role.

How does Australia compare to other nations in its adoption of innovative death tech?

Despite being quick in the uptake of cremation technology, Australia is only just beginning to adopt some of the more innovative death technologies and rites. In general, the UK has led the way in the provision of “natural burial” grounds – that is, sites that accommodate more environmentally friendly burial (no embalming, coffins or caskets), whilst the US and Europe have developed and practice alkaline hydrolysis technology. Even when community demand exists, the conventional funeral industry can be slow to adopt new technologies, and legal reform can also hold them up. This is one of the areas we are interested in investigating further.

Cover of Death and Digital Media (Routledge, 2018)
Cover of Death and Digital Media (Routledge, 2017). Photograph © Death Tech Network

Finally, if I wanted to learn or read more about death tech, what are some of the best and more interesting online resources to check out?

First of all, the team’s books: Death and Digital Media (Routledge, 2018), and the forthcoming edited collection — Residues of the Dead: Disposal Refigured – on the topic of remains.

Our team website, www.deathtech.org, has a collection of media interviews, podcasts, and blogs written by the team about our work, and there’s lots of updates on our twitter, @deathtechrn, as well!

Thank you to Hannah Gould, ARC Research Fellow for the project, Disposal of the Dead, who contributed to this article.