In Haunt

The way we deal with death is changing. In fact, it changes all the time – as time passes and societies shift – but the Covid-19 pandemic is leading to a new set of circumstances when approaching the death process; everything from digital funerals to the language used to discuss the subject. Considering the implications is Dr Becky Alexis-Martin, whose latest paper considers ‘Sensing the deathscape: Digital media and death during COVID-19’.

Previously interviewed by Haunt Manchester here, Becky is a Lecturer in Human Geography at Manchester Metropolitan University and the author of  'Disarming Doomsday: The Human Impact of Nuclear Weapons Since Hiroshima' (Winner of the 2020 LHM Ling Outstanding First Book Prize). Her work often explores the human geographies, and therefore the human impact, of what we might refer to ‘existential threats’ – situations that pose a risk to human existence. Climate change and nuclear weapons are key areas Becky has considered as part of this… with disease, such as that of Covid-19, being another focus.

Dr Becky Alexis-Martin

Above: Dr Becky Alexis-Martin photographing a military graveyard in New Mexico on the Day of the Dead - a current impossibility. Photograph by I. Greenwood

Living through and writing at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, the many ways it is affecting how we deal with death are already evident. As lockdown developed, death was increasingly discussed in statistical terms, news reports included items on the establishment of temporary morgues, funerals were limited in their size and attendees - meaning that many had to resort to a digital option.

Social distancing places obvious challenges to the usual physical rituals we hold in relation to death, particularly the funeral process. For many, attending a funeral provides a unifying element, an opportunity for commemoration and closeness at a time of difficulty. We are accustomed to funerals and their related events taking place in familiar settings – churches, graveyards, crematoriums, memorial gardens. With social distancing in place, access to those areas is limited, leading to what Becky refers to as the ‘digital deathscape’; engagement with the funeral and death process through virtual means. A number of funerals have been subsequently broadcast through digital platforms, providing a new way for families to participate.

But what happens when these death rituals we associate so strongly ‘in place’ are moved ‘out of place’? What are the human implications and experiences? These are questions explored by Becky, who is certainly no stranger to delving into the subject of death and its related fields. Her previous work has involved considering how death and worship practices have been affected in communities following nuclear disasters, for example, and following her earlier career as an Emergency Planner – her insight upon the subject is extensive and forward-thinking. Here at Haunt Manchester, we decided to speak to Becky to find out more…

Hello Becky! Why did you choose to delve into the ‘deathscape’?

"I have grown up feeling comfortable about discussing death, as my aunt is a funeral director. Talking to her about her work has given me an interest in everything from funeral trends to cremation practices. In the case of my recent paper, I wanted to contemplate the deathscape as a figurative landscape of death and its associated cultural practices. New phenomena have emerged that change the very nature of the deathscape, as COVID disrupts traditional practices such as large graveyard funerals, due to disease transmission concerns. I wanted to understand how we have used digital technologies to create new virtual deathscapes - in the absence of a physical and material mourning space. My paper considers three different deathscapes: mass-burial drone footage, digitally-broadcast funerals, and domestic deathscapes. Each scenario contemplates how these death practices become omnipresent (or not) when we are quarantined and online."

Many of us will have become more reliant on digital media during the pandemic. It carries its own contrasts though – i.e. it makes things more instantaneous, yet also can make us feel more ‘at a distance’. Have you noticed any particular contrasts/tensions arising in how it is being used in relation to death?

"Some interesting phenomena have arisen when we think about death and digital media during COVID. Games such as “Animal Crossing” have been used to create new spaces for virtual memorials to loved ones. Social media has become a site of mourning, as people post commemorations to loved ones and highlight funerals. However, tensions have also arisen that relate to the ever-lasting cycle of digital news media – and covert depictions of burial space. For example, in my paper I write about George Steinmetz’s drone footage of freshly dug graves Hart Island Cemetery, New York, which laid bare the utilitarian realities of mass-burial environments to millions of people worldwide – during a global pandemic. This site is normally out-of-bounds to the public, presenting a hidden place to bury those without family or friends. It taps into the darkest aspects of our psyche – and for some New Yorkers, this footage was their first glimpse of this hidden deathscape – and their own mortality."

Your article explores ‘the scenarios that arise when traditionally hidden or ‘in-place’ death rituals arise ‘out-of-place’ – another tension. What are some of most surprising things you have found?

"The third vignette of the paper, “Billy’s Funeral”, presents a personal account of a digitally broadcast, or online, funeral attendance. It gives insights into the way that funeral practices have changed during COVID. I had anticipated that online funeral attendance would not provide a satisfactory opportunity for grieving, and that it would be challenging for guests to compartmentalise the simultaneously home and funeral environment. However, my interviewee was grateful for the opportunity to attend “Billy’s” funeral. She appreciated being able to express her grief at home, without worrying about other mourners or travelling home via public transport afterwards. She cleverly used little normalizing activities to make herself feel comfortable at home afterwards. She said, ‘I just went and got a cup of tea, sent an email to my cousin… I had this work meeting after… I changed my clothes, took the black clothes off so I had a marker that it was over’. I thought that was really interesting – and a lockdown specific phenomenon – as we all have to compartmentalise time while existing within the same space."

In your article you use the fascinating word ‘necropticon’. What do you mean by this and why is it particularly relevant to this time?

"The notion of the necropticon literally means ‘seeing death’. It draws on Foucauldian thought to consider the conscious and permanent visibility of death to us – made present by state isolation in quarantine, health monitoring, and media depictions of death and dying. Thus, the necropticon is well-placed as a new conceptual lens by which to consider the implications of COVID-19. To see death is to become more aware of our own mortality – to self-surveil and consider our own lives and bodies for traces for risk. However, I feel that the necropticon has broader conceptual implications when we reflect upon the highly visible and banal nature of digital media and death more widely. From police brutality to domestic violence – we cannot help but observe the digital traces of “everywhere-death”."

How can finding out more about death and how we treat it be relevant to our own lives today?

"My paper highlighted the broad network of people who digitally witness and care about death, and the ways that digital environments have altered how we experienced death during lockdown. I do think that it is important that we take the time to contemplate death - not just through the lens of death positivity or to reconcile our own mortality - but also though the notion of a "just death”. By this, I mean whether a death is preventable or fair."

For more about Dr Becky Alexis Martin and her work, visit her website and Twitter

Introduction and questions by Emily Oldfield

Photograph by I. Greenwood provided by Dr Becky Alexis-Martin 

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