Death, dying, bereavement, and technologies in the twenty-first century

Laura Towers

18 Sep 2017

Thanatology, or the scientific study of death, is a growing area of work within a broad range of disciplines. The British Sociological Association’s ‘Social Aspects of Death, Dying and Bereavement’ (BSA DDB) study group was founded in the early 1990s and exhibits a similarly diverse membership, including researchers and practitioners of mixed experience from varied backgrounds. The group’s aim is to offer an engaging and encouraging space in which to discuss and share ideas relating to death, dying, and bereavement. This is primarily provided through the group’s yearly symposium; the 2016 gathering was held on December 2 at the Interdisciplinary Centre of the Social Sciences (ICOSS) at the University of Sheffield.

Organised by Julie Ellis (University of Sheffield) and Erica Borgstrom (Open University, Milton Keynes) this annual one-day event brings together researchers and practitioners from a range of disciplines and actively encourages participation from postgraduates and early career staff. In previous years, the BSA DDB symposium has explored a diverse range of topics, such as methodology, policy, family, inequality, and social difference. The theme for this year was ‘Death, Dying, Bereavement and Technologies in the Twenty-First Century’, a necessarily broad title that facilitated a variety of interpretations from several disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, archaeology, law, and medicine. The call for papers acknowledged that advancing medical technologies are changing attitudes and expectations about death and dying and also suggested that technologies are becoming more ubiquitous in everyday life. This year’s theme therefore sought to explore the increasingly diverse number of ways that death, dying, and bereavement can be technologically mediated.

The most immediately striking aspect of this symposium was the atmosphere. Whilst death studies is still a relatively small but growing area of research, it was clear that attendees were largely familiar with one another and pleased to be reacquainted, whilst those new to the group were warmly welcomed and made to feel at ease in their surroundings. This initial impression was reaffirmed during the presentations, as attentive audience members asked a range of engaging questions and offered supportive suggestions in response to speakers who sought advice or guidance. For example, Tony Walter (University of Bath) presented his latest theory in progress, involving a modern application of the Hertzian triangle. Hertz (1960) originally asserted that each person’s death establishes three primary ‘actors’: the corpse, the soul, and the mourners, who relate to one another in some way; for example, what happens to the spirit is dependent on what happens to the corpse. In his presentation, Walter sought to apply this idea to his understanding of the ‘pervasive dead’, which sees the dead as being simultaneously absent and present due to people maintaining ongoing emotional and spiritual relationships with the deceased. As Walter’s theory is currently under development, his presentation was followed by a request for feedback from the audience to help further develop his ideas and listeners were keen to oblige. This was a forward-thinking group, willing to assist one another and collectively establish progress in the field.

The morning session featured a talk by Dr Mark Taubert, a palliative care practitioner working in Cardiff. Whilst all three of the morning’s presentations were interesting and thought provoking, his personal and professional insights brought a unique perspective to the largely academic audience. He offered an engaging and informal account of how David Bowie’s death offered a way to begin the necessary, but understandably difficult, conversation about dying with his patients receiving palliative care. Moreover, he suggested that high-profile celebrity deaths allow death to momentarily become a more accessible topic of conversation, but reflected that such openness is fleeting and broaching the subject is still a potentially awkward challenge. Taubert’s insight, offered from his role as a clinician, highlighted the importance of fostering a relationship between academics and professionals as a way to connect the insights that both perspectives have to offer. Moreover, the enthusiastic response that he received from the audience suggested that such a partnership would be warmly welcomed and highly beneficial. It seems that interdisciplinary and interagency conferences, such as this one, present an opportunity to foster such relationships and develop collaborations.

Whilst the conference theme was broad enough to encompass a variety of interpretations, a clear trend emerged as the day progressed. Approached from a range of perspectives, several presentations focused on digital technologies, primarily social media, as well as augmented reality (AR) and other online platforms. Common considerations alongside these presentations were discussions of appropriate applications and ethical implications, particularly focused on issues of access and ownership of online profiles. For example, Phil Wane’s (Nottingham Trent University) presentation, about using AR to enhance memorial artefacts, prompted a conversation on how to apply newly developed technologies in a sensitive way, whilst questioning the potential role of academic knowledge in these transitions. Moreover, a number of queries were raised about the ethics of gathering data online in relation to anonymity and consent, reflecting wider debates being held within the social sciences (see Hughes 2012). After hearing the day’s discussions, I was left with the impression that these technological advances are developing faster than policy and guidance pertaining to their use, with many interesting questions raised but, as yet, unanswered. Such questions include: Who (if anyone) should have access or ownership rights to a deceased person’s social media account? And how can more people be informed of the need to include these digital assets within their will?

In her closing remarks, Borgstrom concluded that the day’s presentations had highlighted several changes in how the living and the dead interact with technology, as well as a number of continuities. Thinking through the technologies, and how they are engaged with and shaping death practices, can help us identify these shifts and commonalities. Additionally, she noted that the presentations demonstrated how technology can be utilized not only for the benefit of the living and the dead but also as a method of connection between the living and the dead. This is in stark contrast to discourses that suggest the dead are sequestered and absent. I would suggest that it became increasingly evident, based on the presentations and general talk from the day, that a primary feature in the future of death studies is likely to be linked to continuing developments in the realm of social media.

Tweets from the day are available by searching #DDB16. More information about the study group can be found on the BSA website:

About the author

Laura Towers is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield. Her research interests include various aspects of death, dying, and bereavement, as well as identity, kinship, and relationality. She is currently exploring lived experiences of sibling bereavement over the life course using in-depth interviewing and artefact elicitation. Further information about this study can be found at

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Hertz, Robert. 1960. Death and the Right Hand. London: Cohen and West.
Hughes, Jason. 2012. SAGE Internet Research Methods. London: SAGE Publications.