It was a steamy Thursday night in mid-June when my 90-year-old father-in-law phoned from Sydney. He was in the hospital and called to wish us, his family in Hong Kong, “good luck” with our lives. He died on Saturday morning, and the service was set for Tuesday. It was too complicated to go to Australia, and even if we’d been able to fly to Sydney, the funeral home wouldn’t have let us in because of distancing rules. So, from more than 7,350 kilometers away, we chose to honor him virtually. The day of the memorial, we dressed in our best, and shortly before 10 a.m., we turned on our living room television to watch the funeral via the webcasting service OneRoom.
We sat in the virtual back row of the All Souls Chapel, while our family in Australia sat in the front, friends behind them. After the rabbi had spoken and the remembrance was over, we watched the coffin being lowered into the ground and, amid the murmurings of the mourners, listened to the sound of dirt shoveled onto it. That evening, we Zoomed in to hear the rabbi chanting the kaddish at a service at the Sephardi Synagogue. At the end of it, in keeping with Jewish tradition, my husband cut up his shirt.
Covid-19 has radically upended how we bury and mourn our loved ones. As these processes are increasingly mediated by tech, the pandemic is transforming the global “death care” market, which consists of funeral, burial, and internment services and which, in 2020, was estimated to have a market size of $106.3 billion. All over the world, people are adapting religious and regional customs to this new reality, and startups are working overtime to digitize practices around death.
According to Davide Sisto, a philosopher and authority on thanatechnology who recently published a book called “Online Afterlives: Immortality, Memory and Grief in Digital Culture,” the coming years will see an integration of traditional funerals with online rituals. Startups around the world have already anticipated this trend. To capitalize on it — and to adapt local traditions and customs to the digital age — many companies are expanding their offerings in the “end-of-life” sector. While this didn’t begin with the onset of the pandemic, Sisto notes that “Covid-19 has accelerated an ongoing social and cultural process, because our life is now ‘onlife’ — both online and offline.”
In India, for instance, a Hindu funeral lasts a minimum of two weeks and requires an array of different materials. On the first day, in some parts of the country, mourners need 41 articles, including cow dung and water from the Ganges River, which is used to immerse the ashes. In the western Indian city of Pune, as Covid-19 cases skyrocketed last June, the ritual services startup Guruji on Demand (aka “G.O.D”), which launched in 2019 and normally operates only as a booking service for priests (gurujis), added a one-stop digital Hindu funeral package. For the price of $339, the company takes care of everything: it finds a priest to administer last rites, assembles the materials needed for the funeral, organizes transportation of the body, and arranges the cremation and death certification. From the first quarter of last year to the end of September, says co-founder Pranav Chaware, revenue jumped 219%.
In China, where filial piety is highly valued, an important component of the annual Qingming festival is tomb sweeping — it is believed that cleaning a loved one’s grave or leaving their spirit food and gifts can save them (and you) from suffering in the afterlife. When the festival rolled around last April, many Chinese opted to use a cloud service offered by Fu Shou Yuan International Group, the nation’s largest funeral provider, to virtually “clean” their ancestors’ graves and upload virtual offerings, such as flowers, money, candles, and drinks. Customers seeking a more IRL experience could also use the platform to hire cemetery workers to sweep the graves of loved ones or have valets polish tombstones, bow to ancestors, deliver tea and flowers, or read messages of good tidings, all over livestream. According to Fu Shou Yuan International Group, more than 900,000 people across more than 30 cities used the platform during Qingming.
Many of the world’s most sophisticated end-of-life startups have come out of Japan, which has an aging population — just over one in four people are 65 years or over — and a funeral sector worth nearly $19.5 billion a year. The demand for end-of-life (shūkatsu) services is so great that a survey taken in 2020 found that 28% of Japanese had signed up with a funeral company, the highest number ever. In the past two years, more companies have emerged to tap into this market. For mourners unable to attend funerals in person because of Covid-19, firms like Memolead and Life Ending Technologies have started livestreaming Buddhist funerals and digitizing these two-day ceremonies. The companies offer services that enable guests to watch the funeral and farewell ceremonies online and to send condolence money through online payment systems.
Respect for the dead is deeply embedded in Japan’s culture. Historically, companies wouldn’t build skyscrapers that overlook graves, out of respect, and a major bank once opened an account for a dead samurai to stop him haunting them. It’s common for families to have Buddhist altars in their house to venerate their ancestors. In recent years, these end-of-life and memorial processes are increasingly digitized. In Tokyo, where space is limited, several companies have built a number of multistory columbaria to house these cremains, with the biggest ones holding tens of thousands. These operate as fully automated warehouse distribution systems.
Typically, according to Daisuke Uriu, a project lecturer at the University of Tokyo, thousands of cremains are stored in metal boxes arranged on rows of shelves, and when friends or families visit, they can tap an ID card on a digital reader to call up the remains of their loved one. An automated arm will place the urn on a conveyor belt so it can be delivered to a private booth where family members can pay their respects.
Consumers are becoming more aware of how much information they leave behind after they die and are thinking more about how they will manage their online legacies. The pandemic has likely increased the amount of digital remains on the web, experts say, leading to a vast and growing number of abandoned profiles. Oxford Internet Institute associated researcher Carl Öhman anticipates that, by 2070, Facebook will have more deceased people with accounts than living ones, and this number may increase to about a billion people over the next three decades. It is difficult to estimate how much material will be associated with these accounts, but in 2013, online security company McAfee found that people around the world on average valued their digital assets at $35,000. There are certainly ways to monetize digital remains, says Öhman — companies can analyze the data for market research or use it to train new models of artificial intelligence. But, he adds, it’s an ethically sensitive area.
Broadly, there are four main services that companies in the “digital afterlife industry” offer: managing digital information, hosting online memorials, re-creation, and posthumous messaging, in which digital messages are sent to a deceased person’s loved ones after their death. Given that Big Tech firms already host and own a bulk of digital data due to an absence of regulation in most countries, it’s likely that companies like Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn will have an outsized presence in afterlife management and will continue to prevent startups from gaining much traction. “My guess is that what we’re going to see is Big Tech appropriating the features offered by startups,” says Öhman, adding, “many of the features implemented by Facebook, for instance, originated in the startup world before they went mainstream.” One example: it’s now possible to transform a deceased user’s Facebook account into an online memorial.
When it comes to posthumous re-creation, in which the deceased are “re-created” with the help of digital archives, Asian countries, particularly South Korea and Japan, are also paving the way. Driven by concern over the country’s aging population, Japan’s government set up a working group dedicated to researching avatars and “cybernetic avatar capitalism” — a future society staffed by avatars. But mostly these experiments have stayed in the realm of entertainment. The possibilities for re-creation were put on display last year when Japanese singer Hibari Misora appeared onstage with the help of the Yamaha Corporation to sing a new song — despite having died in 1989. Last year, a clip from a South Korean documentary that featured a mother reconnecting with her dead 7-year-old daughter via virtual reality attracted 23 million viewers. Gamers have perhaps been most proactive in exploring the connections between the digital realm and death. In April, hordes of umbrella-toting avatars flocked to the Japanese game Final Fantasy XIV for the funeral march in honor of a gamer and Covid-19 victim known as Ferne Le’roy, and hundreds of thousands more watched the procession on YouTube and Twitter.
On the business side, there is no doubt that Covid-19 has accelerated the growing field of digital afterlife management, says Jed Brubaker, who worked with Facebook to establish its “legacy contact” service, which lets users choose who looks after their account when they die. Brubaker notes that digital estate planning often follows the money yet overlooks logistics, like social media and, say, cancelling a Netflix account. This is where startups like the Japan-based Hanamaru Syukatsu and the U.S. company GoodTrust come in. Such digital legacy platforms help customers secure their digital assets and properly archive their memories.
According to GoodTrust founder Rikard Steiber, who recently published “Digital Legacy: Take Control of Your Online Afterlife” with co-author Daniel Sieberg, online afterlife management presents a series of unique challenges that tend to be contingent on where the person lived. In the U.S., for instance, when a person dies, it is necessary to get a court order to access an online account. And that’s just one account. “If you want content from multiple sources,” Steiber said, “you need to have multiple court orders in multiple formats, and things could change even before you present them.” Simply getting a court order is overwhelming, Steiber says, and if users choose not to go through the courts, technology companies are often not prepared to help. This can be especially difficult for people in non-Western countries, who are suddenly forced to engage with major Silicon Valley companies if they want to de-register a loved one’s account or cancel a membership.
“It has never been more clear that we need better technology support at the end of life,” says Brubaker, who now teaches information science at the University of Colorado Boulder. “From digital estates to Zoom funerals, Covid-19 has made death part of all of our lives and, to the extent that those lives are now digital, technology has been woefully inadequate.”
Faheem Hussain, an assistant professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, is particularly concerned with how people in the Global South will be affected by issues surrounding the digital afterlife. The majority of the dead on Facebook in coming years will be non-Western users, with a significant portion from India and Indonesia. In a study of Facebook’s digital afterlife policies, Hussain found that people and governments in developing countries were more vulnerable than others when it came to digital assets. In many countries, there are no legal or social nets to protect individuals or to guarantee that their reputations and work remain protected after their deaths.
The early signs of what this might all mean are already visible. Inactive accounts of dead users have been targeted by hackers, and cybersecurity firm NortonLifeLock found that nearly 500 million consumers across 10 countries have been victims of a cybercrime, and 350 million of these crimes took place in 2019 alone. Additionally, nearly 46 million internet users fell victim in 2019 to identity theft.
As the pandemic forces more people online for everyday needs as well as age-old traditions, many don’t know what exactly they are signing up for nor how permanent their new “onlife” will become. All around the world, people are figuring out how to mourn digitally at a distance, how to respectfully care for the digital afterlife of the deceased, and ultimately, how to prepare for their own deaths. Every country presents its own set of challenges and contradictions, and the speed at which technology is adapted and the extent to which it disrupts existing industries differ everywhere. But for now, we’re all living in a world in which tech enables us to mourn a loved one thousands of kilometers away — while, at the same time, making it extremely difficult to take down their social media page.