Episode 6 in the SHAPS Podcast Series: Professor Mike Arnold

Professor Mike Arnold discusses his research on the intersections between death, technology and society, in this final episode of the SHAPS 2020 ‘Disaster and Change’ podcast series, hosted by Dr Henry Reese.

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Welcome back to the SHAPS Forum podcast. My name is Henry Reese and today I’ll be speaking with Mike Arnold, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Professor Arnold’s expertise is wide, and much of his recent research has been concerned with the impact of digital technology and media on society and culture. Mike Arnold is also a key member of the DeathTech Research Team, an interdisciplinary group that has spent over ten years exploring the intersections between death, technology and society.

Based in Melbourne and Oxford, this research team is situated at the forefront of a growing scholarly interest in the end of life, death, dying, and the disposal of the dead. So, today, I’d like to reflect on the work of the DeathTech Research Team and the broader place of death in our world and the research environment. Professor Mike Arnold, welcome to the podcast.

Thanks very much, Henry. Thanks for having me.

So, Mike, I’d like to begin in a fairly obvious place. We began this podcast series a year ago with a focus on the theme of Disaster & Change. We were struck by a sense of a world in rapid flux, one in which older certainties were unravelling in real time, restless and frustrated in Melbourne’s first lockdown and equally struck by the dreadful bushfires of Australia’s Black Summer, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic [in 2020]. We were provoked to ask researchers how they responded to the twin calamities of unfolding environmental and biological crisis.

Professor Janet McCalman opened up our series by reflecting on the deep history of pandemic disease and the crucial role that biological agents have played in precipitating different social and political changes across the globe. Responding to the way that the Coronavirus had made manifest many of the deepest inequalities in Australian and global society, Professor McCalman used the example of Australia’s postwar reconstruction to explore the sense of political possibility that can also stem from unprecedented crisis.

Continuing in our Disaster & Change series, the historian Professor Mark Edele reflected on the totemic impact that the Second World War had on the Soviet Union in the decades to follow.

And the classicist Professor Nathan Rosenstein outlined the changes wrought on the Roman Republic following its disastrous defeat at the Battle of Cannae.

Professor Margaret Cameron also offered a rich philosophical discussion of how we might think about the concept of change in a rapidly changing world.

And in the heat of the Black Lives Matter protests at mid-year, Professor Peter McPhee situated the removal of statues within a longer history of revolutionary iconoclasm.

So, we’ve come a long way in this series, clearly. We’ve approached this from all sorts of angles. But something that we’ve not quite tackled directly yet is the impact of mass death in the COVID crisis. Obviously, society has borne witness to a lot of death since 2020. It seems like it’s almost every day that we hear that another so-called ‘grim milestone’ has been passed in the global battle with the COVID-19 virus.

Those two words, ‘grim milestone’, have entered public usage in a large way, giving a darkly poetic flavour to otherwise straightforward reportage. We now learned that the total death toll from the virus has passed two million, one third of which are from North America. So, what I’d like to think about today is how do we make sense of such numbers? Does the sheer quantum of death poses any challenges?

One of the key motivations, Henry, for forming the DeathTech Team and entering into the twin research projects that are running at the moment, predates COVID, of course, and a motivation is that we are now entering what people in the funeral industry call ‘peak death’. Peak death is a description of a period of time in which people of my age, that is the Baby Boomers, are dying. So, over the next 20 years, COVID or no COVID, over the next 20 years in the Western world, not in other parts, but in the Western world, we will have more people dying than ever before. Those people are richer than other generations ever before.

And, of course, that is a great stimulus in the death care industries, the funeral industries, for innovation, for startups, for new products and new services, because there’s a lot of people with a lot of money, who are dying. But to come back to the last year and COVID in particular, the death in numbers that we’ve experienced really has been challenging, and it would be a bit self-centred of me to be talking about challenges to us as researchers as compared to the challenges that those numbers posed for people in the death industries.

So, for example, here in Melbourne, the experience of people in death care has been pointed, more pointed this year than in previous years just because of the numbers; so, for example, we’ve been talking with body transport workers. Now they’re accustomed to going to nursing homes and picking up bodies from nursing homes. That’s what they do. And they have emotional shields in place that enable them to do that important work without being too traumatised. But this year, they report going back to the same nursing home, time and time and time again, sometimes multiple times in the one day, picking up bodies. That is a gruelling, gruelling experience.

And we’ve done well, as most Australians know, compared to the numbers of deaths in northern Italy, for example. So at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in northern Italy, funeral directors ran out of coffins, simply had no coffins. They would try to procure them from other parts of Europe. But nobody is willing. Nobody is willing to give up their coffins; they are in short supply. What do you do when you’re trying to cope with these funerals, and you haven’t got that basic equipment?

In the US, the richest, most advanced country in the world – there were funeral directors in New York and in sections of Los Angeles, for example, that ran out of space, refrigerated space in their morgues. They simply didn’t have storage facilities, they were overrun. So, they had to hire refrigerated food trucks and park the trucks at the front of the premises and store bodies in those trucks or refrigerated shipping containers; hire those and put them in their car parks and store bodies there. There were mass burials in New York on Hart Island. Hart Island is sometimes called a potter’s field – it originated actually as a place where prisoners were buried when they died. But, for many years now, it’s been a place where paupers are buried, they are shipped out to Hart Island on a barge, there’s no bridge, it’s very difficult to get permission to visit Hart Island. But we know from those who had been able to visit and from satellite images, and so forth, that heavy machinery has been used to dig mass graves; coffins are marked, but the coffins are placed in these very long trenches that are then filled in with the heavy earthmoving equipment and the graves are marked.

In Iran, similarly, they’ve coped with the sheer numbers of deaths by using heavy machinery to dig mass graves, and to bury people in those unmarked graves. So, there really have been strains all across the funeral industry, in many parts of the world in the last year.

A lot of this makes me think about the US Civil War – an instance of catastrophic death on an industrial scale that precipitated scientific and technical innovation. We think about the rise of refrigeration, and refrigerated rail cars that became so central to the massive economic expansion and settler colonial expansion of the Midwest in those crucial decades after the Civil War, while there was still this restless Western expansion of US colonialism.

Yes, and embalming. Embalming had its origins in the American Civil War. The refrigeration, of course, was in short supply. And the young men who were killed were a long way from home and often in hot places, and the families wanted them shipped back home for burial.

It’s amazing to think about death on an unprecedented scale as leading to policy innovation in that sense.

Something that strikes me as quite different about the improvised solutions to this enormous uptick in the dead to deal with, especially in the US, is the more decentralised or chaotic nature of this – the fact that there has been less direction from the centre, which seems to give the individual solutions you’ve outlined a certain flavour of their own. Are there any innovations, for want of a better word, that have arisen in the death industry over the last year?

We had an international webinar a little while ago, where we invited collaborators and other colleagues in the funeral industry and in academia, mainly from the UK, and the US, and here in Australia. It was very interesting, particularly to hear our UK people and our US people talking about how they were coping. And that resonated here too in Melbourne.

Now, 15 minutes before we started this recording, Henry, the Premier [of Victoria] announced a new set of restrictions. And, among those restrictions, is that funeral attendance is to go back to ten people only for the next four days. And listeners will remember that under the long and hard lockdown that we experienced in 2020, for quite a period of time, funerals were restricted to ten persons only. That required a lot of change, of course, and a lot of innovation.

Ordinarily, the number of people who are attending a funeral in Australia and around the world too is about 60 – about 60 people attend an average funeral. Now, when you’re restricted, when you come from 60, back to ten, what you need to do, often, is to deny blood relatives the opportunity to go to the funeral. There are plenty of extended families that exceed ten persons. You need to make decisions about who can attend, and who can’t attend, whether, you know, the work colleague or the golfing friend, or whatever, you know, which one of them can attend, because both of them can’t attend. So, those kinds of changes were quite fraught.

Also fraught was the change in the role of the funeral celebrant or the funeral director. They didn’t sign up to those jobs, to be police. And, yet, they found themselves having to police the ten-person restriction, having to keep people out, to tell people, no, you can’t come into the chapel, you can’t come in to the church again – not something that they enjoyed at all.

But there are also innovatory practices that emerged that work very well. So, for example, a couple of our funeral celebrants reported that when those who are not able to attend realised that that was the case, they devised other means to be present in absence, if you like. For example, it became a thing, rather than getting flowers from the florist, to gather one’s own flowers from the garden, and make up a bouquet in a very special way. And that bouquet would attend a funeral in place of the person who’d made it. Similarly, decorating the coffin became a thing. Those who could not attend the funeral were invited to be present through annotating – is that the word? – or decorating, whatever the word is, making their visual presence evident at the funeral through some kind of motif or some words, or whatever. People who couldn’t attend would write a poem, and the poem might be read at the funeral; so, there were those kinds of innovations. And, of course, streaming is the other one. Streaming of funerals and video recording of funerals has been available in the UK, the US and Australia for decades; but the uptake had been moderate, put it that way; prior to COVID, it was not unusual to video record or to stream a funeral but it probably wasn’t the standard practice.

But in COVID, in 2020, it became the standard practice. We were talking, actually, only yesterday, with a company that specialises in streaming funerals. And they were telling us that, on average, they had about 200 people watching each of the funerals that they streamed, and that they have many, many, many hundreds of thousands of people in 2020 who watched either a recording of the funeral or watched the funeral in real time through streaming.

We invited comment on what might happen at the end of COVID, whether it would have a negative impact on numbers of people at the funeral because of the new accessibility of streaming. The view of this practitioner, this professional, is that numbers attending in person will bounce back to about 60 at the funeral, but there will certainly be no drop-off in the hundreds who watched the recording, or who watch the streaming. So, that’s an innovation that’s found its time.

It strikes me that a lot of these new practices or practices that have been adapted or taken up in a new way, they all seem to collectively pose the question of what exactly is a funeral? What’s a funeral about? What’s a funeral for? Is it just about paying respect? Is it about presence? Is it about empathy?

Yeah, that’s right. And in this time that the industry calls peak death, we are also seeing other major socio-technical and cultural changes that perhaps accompany the Baby Boomers. And that is a society that is much more secularised than it has been for previous generations. And a society that is much more individualised than it has been for previous generations. And funerals reflect that secularisation and individualisation. So, the Baby Boomers, who are leading the way by the fact that we’re dying, but also, of course, other generations, Millennials too, demanding bespoke funerals. Neither the Baby Boomers, nor Generation X, or, you know, the Millennials, will accept the funeral director saying, well, look, this is the way we do a funeral. This is the way a funeral has always been done. This is the tradition. And this is what’s going to happen. That’s not acceptable anymore. And, so, we get all kinds of things happening at funerals.

What’s it like working closely with members of this death industry? How do they understand their role in this wider ‘ecosystem of death’, if you like?

We try to get a grip on what’s happening there in the industry in a number of different ways. For many years now, except for 2020, we’ve attended the death industry trade shows. The death industry is a very big, multi-billion dollar industry in the US, Australia and the UK, which is where our work is mainly centred. And we’re familiar faces, now, at the shows; we’ve gotten to know a lot of industry professionals and develop relationships with them. So, that’s one way we’ve tried to get a grip.

We’ve tried to drill down, more specifically, to the COVID experience in a couple of ways in particular. We’ve established an online Padlet, which is a map of the globe, and industry people in particular, but also lay people we found, you know, ordinary members of the public, have come in on this as well. But we directed it initially to people in the industry, to click on their location on the map and then to tell their story.

And by telling their story and being able to locate that story in a geographical context, people in the industry were able to share experiences from the UK, to the US to Australia, and to Japan and through Southeast Asia and Hong Kong and China. So, that was a useful method.

Locally, we’ve been going and visiting people in the industry. And we’ve compiled a photo essay where we have, in inverted commas, ‘hero photos’ of industry workers, who have been confronted by COVID in a way that they haven’t been confronted before. And, in the context of taking the photo and interviewing them and putting them all together, you know, we’ve developed good relations with them.

We’ve also run industry workshops – that’s an invitation-only workshop, where we have 40 or 50 prominent people in the various death professions who come together. And that’s an opportunity for them to meet each other because, of course, oftentimes they don’t work across the different professions, you know, so they welcome the opportunity. People who work for the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust like to meet up with people who are the celebrants, you know, blah, blah. So, that’s a good opportunity for them to meet with one another, and to meet with us as well.

Following on from that, and from your comments earlier about some of the kind of spatial implications or challenges that have been posed, certainly in the last year, in thinking about disposal and burial of the dead. One of the major outputs of your research from last year was the Future Cemeteries Survey, which I believe was released in March 2020. Could you tell us a little bit more about what the Future Cemeteries Project was interested in and what some of your main findings were in that survey?

Sure. We have an industry partner, which is the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust. And we’re working with them with creating [Australian] Research Council funding to try to provide them with an evidence base by which they might improve the services that they offer the public. In their cemeteries, though, they have 19 cemeteries, some of which no longer active, they’re heritage cemeteries. And that’s an interesting thing in itself with focusing, for example, on the Coburg Cemetery and Northcote Cemetery in Separation Street. They’re both heritage cemeteries and they’re of historical value, they’re of community value, but exactly what is that value? What do locals think of it? How do locals want to make use of those spaces? How do they now make use of the spaces now and in the future? Might they want to make use of those heritage spaces?

And then we come to the active cemeteries such as Fawkner [Memorial Park]. Now, what do people want to do? How might we improve what Fawkner does? Is remote grave visitation something that people want? So someone who, for example, might be frail, in a nursing home, perhaps, and it’s the spouse’s birthday, perhaps, or wedding anniversary or something like that, but they’re too frail to visit the grave. And we devise technologies, which enable them to visit the grave, virtually, from the nursing home. Is that something that’s desirable, let alone doable? We need to find that out.

People walking through the cemetery, they might stop and they might see a name that perhaps is a little familiar, or for some other reason, curiosity is struck. Would it be desirable to have an auditory system attached to a grave, which is based around storytelling? So, using a smartphone, for example, one could identify a grave as being a storytelling grave by a marker of some sort on the grave. One could use the smartphone and hear the stories of the person who is buried at that site. Is that something people want? Is that something that’s going to enhance the cemetery? Or is it going to be a distraction, a gimmick? We don’t know. This is what we were trying to find out.

The GMCT is building a new cemetery out at Harkness. At the moment, it’s greenfield. So, what are they going to do with it? Is there going to be natural burial there? If there is, what’s that going to look like? Are they going to have new methods of final disposition, that is, the disposal of the body as alternatives to burial and cremation? There are other ways of disposing of the body, such as alkaline hydrolysis, such as Recompose‘s method of composting the body. Is there an appetite for alternatives to burial and cremation? Or are they going to stick with the tried and true ones? Those are the kinds of research questions that we’re exploring.

That’s an amazingly comprehensive list. There are so many fascinating and, as you’ve suggested, quite urgent angles to explore this topic from, as the quantum of death increases in our ageing population.

Another thing that you’ve also written a fair bit about, Mike, is online memorials and funerals. And you’ve touched on this earlier, too: the mediated nature of death, especially over the last year or so. Are there any other features of online memorials or funerals that we haven’t touched on yet, but which you think the average listener might not know about this topic? Have you learned anything surprising?

One thing that your listeners might be interested in is the notion of using chatbot artificial intelligence, married to a biographical database, if you like. There’s a couple of ambitions here, but one is, in order to commemorate a person or a group of people. Now that sounds very abstract.

A concrete example is the Holocaust Museum. Here in Australia, [at the Sydney Jewish Museum], what they’ve done is extensively interview Holocaust survivors. So, they have hundreds and hundreds of hours of interview material. Rather than then just presenting that interview material as a series of podcasts or in a written form or something like that, what they’re doing is marrying that database, the interview database, with artificial intelligence chatbot software, so that a person visiting a museum can approach the virtual Holocaust survivor and ask questions. And the chatbot will process the questions and will respond accordingly. So, if you’re curious to know what the person was fed in the concentration camp, you know, whether there were any joyful moments at all, in the concentration camp, one can ask that question. And the objective is to receive a sensible and relevant answer.

Now, in some circles, this is controversial; is that profane? Is that a desirable thing to do? Personally, I think it is a desirable thing to do. But there would be others who would have their doubts. The same principles have been used to do private commemorations or memorials. So, for example, there’s a guy in the United States who did the same thing, in regard to his father. Everybody knew that his father was dying. This guy worked in Silicon Valley, he worked on chatbots. He went through that process of pointedly interviewing his father, and then using that as a database for the chatbot, he used as his measure of success, his mother’s reaction to the chatbot. So, he deliberately kept his mother away from the process whilst it was in alpha form. And then when it was in beta form, and he was basically happy with the way it was shaping up, he invited his mother to talk with his now-dead father. And to his relief, she found it a positive experience. And she thanked him for it.

So, these kinds of things can be done as digital technologies, become more and more capable, and shape our expectations more and more, shape our judgements and our cultures about what can be done, what should be done.

There are some astonishing historical continuities there too, in terms of interactions with mediated death – something that I’ve explored recently through my own research. My research focuses on cultures of sound recording, and the way that recorded sound fits into a wider soundscape. When the phonograph and gramophone, these first pioneering technologies of sound recording were brand new, when this old technology was new, in the words of the historian Carolyn Marvin, in the late nineteenth century, it was something that was always notable – how to deal with the voice of someone who has died? How do listeners correctly interact with the voice of someone who’s dead in a time in which mediated traces of someone in a sensory medium like sound, were previously all but impossible?

In early demonstrations of sound recording technology in Australia, the fact that this cornet player or this singer whose voice you’re now hearing is dead, attracted  an extraordinarily broad array of responses. In a way it became a really interesting device to think with for listeners and I get that impression with these prototype or emerging technologies too.

You’re quite right about that. And you’re quite right about the history of that. We wrote a book a while back, called Death and Digital Media. One of the chapters in the book talks about the early media that you were talking about, the early phonographs and so forth, and how they were used in spiritualism and that kind of stuff. And as you say, in contemporary times, having holographic performances by Michael Jackson and other dead people, that’s become a thing. And again, some fans think it’s profane, other fans think it’s really great.

And it’s the ambition of some entrepreneurial companies too. There’s a company called Eternime, which for some years now has, unsuccessfully, so far, tried to do that thing that was the subject of that terrific Black Mirror episode called ‘Be Right Back’. The ambition that was depicted in the Black Mirror episode and then Eternime’s ambition is to thoroughly separate biological life from social life to enable somebody who’s biologically dead to continue to lead an active social life. And they would do that by mining the entirety of a person’s social media presence. So, all tweets, all Instagram posts, all Facebook posts, all emails, everything that the person produced digitally, would form the database. And then that database would be processed and then used by AI software to participate in an ongoing, online social life. So, I might be dead, but my Facebook, or whatever the equivalent is, profile would continue to be active. I would continue to post or continue to respond to posts, even though I’m biologically dead.

That’s radical and fascinating. I wonder, then – this is probably quite a frustrating question, but could you venture any predictions about the future of death in the next generation or so?

No. You know, look, it’s not going to change, I don’t think, as radically as some suppose. What we’ve noted is the conservatism of the industry, and the conservatism of the families who are dealing with death. And there are good reasons for that conservatism, I think. There used to be a saying, in IT circles in the 1960s: Nobody ever got sacked for buying an IBM. The funeral industries are a bit like that. They’re very risk averse, because you only get one shot at a funeral. They only get one shot at it. And if you stuff it up, it’s not a small matter. It’s a big matter. So, you can see why the funeral industry is risk averse when it comes to innovation. Similarly, the families who are making arrangements, are inexperienced; most people, you know – how many funerals does a person arrange in their life? Not very many. And what kind of mental and emotional state are they in? Are they in a state in which they will embrace something that’s risky, something that’s perhaps risky, something that’s new, something that’s innovative and different? You know, the headspace you’re in when you’re grieving is a line of least resistance, rather than having the energy to innovate, if I can put it that way.

So, Mike Arnold, as a final question: something that strikes me as important and refreshing about the DeathTech Research Group is the direct and serious, but sometimes also, lighthearted way in which you approach your topic. For instance, the DeathTech website lists the members of the collective in order of your proximity to the average age of death. Obviously, you’re tackling the topic of death head-on and in a way, that’s really refreshing, I find – but it’s also a subject that’s freighted with such cultural sensitivities and taboo, but also of a perennial interest to the broad public. I mean, I think that’s a really interesting interface that you’re dealing with there. How do you manage your interface with the public? Or how do you think about your role in commenting on death as a subject of research?

My feeling, my experience is that people are not freaked out by the kind of thing we’re doing. When I chat with people, not academics, just neighbours and so forth – we chat about our work as men do. And I tell them what I’m doing, what my research field is; and I’ve never had anybody who’s obviously changed the topic of conversation or felt taken aback at all about this. Quite the opposite. In fact, people are intrigued – they’re intrigued by these new methods, these alternatives to burial, and cremation, they’re intrigued by the idea of having a memorial in World of Warcraft. These kinds of things don’t freak people out. What does perturb people is their own death, and that’s different – confronting one’s own death is quite a different thing to confronting death in the abstract.

Mike, it’s been fantastic to get to know a little more about your fascinating research this afternoon. Thank you so much for your time.

This podcast was produced by the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our University operates – lands of the Kulin peoples, which includes the Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung, Wathaurong, Dja Dja Wurrung and Taungurung peoples, as well as the Yorta Yorta nation. We pay our respects to their Elders, past and present and emerging, and acknowledge that sovereignty to these lands was never ceded.


You can read more on the DeathTech Research Team’s project in a previous Forum article.

Feature image: Yumiko Nakajima picking out her future resting place. Photographer: Emiko Jozuka, from ‘Death Is a High-Tech Trip in Japan’s Futuristic Cemeteries’, Emiko Jozuka, Vice