Dr Eleanor O’Keeffe worked as Post Doctoral Research Associate on the AHRC funded project British Ritual Innovation under COVID-19. Here, she discusses some of her research into digital adoption in response to the pandemic.
Sequoia Nagamatsu’s 2022 novel How High We Go in the Dark, which was started before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, offers us a bleak vision of a post-flu pandemic economy entirely pivoted towards death. Corporations deal with dying and the disposal of bodies. Funerary insurance has replaced the monetary system, and euthanasia fairgrounds help parents manage the emotional toll of mass terminal illness amongst children. Most people in the novel have some role in the death economy, managing bereavement or bodies, including one character who works on:
Approving memorial profile requests, answering messages for the deceased on WeFuture…It can be emotionally draining work, though I still take pride in helping people through their pain. My floor supervisor is named Dennis and he has a tough role managing shadow profiles. He assumes the personality of the deceased and continues to post updates and chat with their friends and family.
Like all speculative fiction, Nagamatsu’s work meditates on contemporary truths, such as the growth in corporate deathcare and, of course, digital memorialisation. It has been over a decade since Tony Walter reviewed how the internet had changed dying and mourning, elucidating and enhancing new belief structures and practices. Since then, digital means and methods have become ingrained in our culture. More people continue bonds with their loved ones via the internet through social media sites – a phenomenon which social media companies quickly had to respond to. It could be assumed, therefore, that a pandemic that so disrupted our social and ritual lives, and confronted us with mass death, would both employ, and even extend, the possibilities in the digital beyond.
The extent of digital acculturation and innovation, as well as its implications, has been a key research question for so many projects in the Pandemic & Beyond portfolio. We’ve seen increased adoption of digital means of working and communicating in healthcare, museums and heritage, library services, and the creative industries, and much of the Pandemic & Beyond research suggests that the impacts have been complex and ambiguous. This is especially the case with online memorial engagement, which is so difficult to scope. “Digital memorialisation” can refer to an array of practices, utilising different online functionalities and technologies. How the pandemic has impacted across these facets will be teased out in future work in information and communications, death, religious, and memory studies. Here, I point to a few areas of change, starting with Nagamatsu’s depiction because it steers us away from assumptions that digital formats necessarily privilege grass roots or vernacular cultural action. What happens on the internet also relies on financed infrastructures, resources, and notions of authority.
Undeniably, there has been greater recourse to online means to manage bereavement. Estimates would put the UK’s ‘silent epidemic’ at well over 1 million people and rising. Like other public health services, bereavement care has developed new and increased online facilities. In addition, the facility of the web for those who experience particularly difficult bereavement circumstances, known before the pandemic, has proven especially important for COVID-19.Research demonstrates the value of social media platforms for building self-sustaining and self-mobilising support networks for grief. Emily Harrop recently noted 29% of a bereavement survey cohort referencing the importance of self-help groups on social media for supporting them with difficult feelings of isolation and difference. Faith communities, too, have reached out to express support and solidarity through online networks. More people who have lost loved ones during the pandemic also utilised memorial pages on established providers, such as MuchLoved.com, with an even more significant uplift noticed in people engaging with their functionalities to express sympathy and love.
In theory, the relative accessibility of web tools, and availability of web spaces, might have generated a verdant and highly variated landscape of memorialisation online in response to COVID-19. This has simply not happened. This may be in part because there has not yet been a popular “memorial boom” in response to the pandemic and it is unclear whether one will emerge. On one hand, we see a burst of memorialising activity, represented by the significant work of the National Covid Memorial Wall and the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice or the Marie Curie charity-led National Day of Reflection, which contrasts with the absence of such memorialising activity one hundred years before: there was no such national memorialisation for the “Spanish Flu”. Social media has been crucial for both these projects in supporting their social and political activism. But their popular cut-through and the scale or nature of public participation is (as yet) unclear.
COVID-19 memorialisation has been underway, however. There has always been a high expectation that there would be memorials for the pandemic in the UK, because it’s the established communicative tool for expressing solidarity with the bereaved and those who have taken the burden of COVID-19, and also because it’s ingrained into local and national identities. In the first eight months of the pandemic, I identified 161 memorial projects begun or completed, created by local authorities, NHS Trusts, funerary companies, or partnerships between them. These have looked to memorial forms which offer a swift and low cost enaction. Memorials have thus synergised with existing environmental strategies (e.g., tree planting), as well as budgets for improvements for green space amenities – two factors that have influenced the turn to natural symbolism, as much as the desire to capture something of the lockdown experience. A sizable proportion (17%) have attempted to build online memorial spaces for communities, such as “virtual” books of remembrance.
By moving online, we do not necessarily pass memory work from the artist or sculptor over to a radical digital “creative”, although this is of course possible. Examples of artists using technologies or online facilities to create responsive memorial spaces are also evident. Resources are, after all, intrinsic to memorial practice and state investments in digital infrastructures have also paid out in memorial work, such as for the National Police Memorial Day observance in the pandemic, or the production of local authority books of remembrance. Online memorialisation spaces can reinforce tradition, hierarchies, and state perspectives, offering more ways to experience state institutions as much as encouraging grass roots action: we may have had more online portals accepting condolence messages in response to Prince Phillip’s death than for COVID-19. Agencies that have built memorials online have been those possessed of digital infrastructures, but also cultural authority. Consensus over the legitimacy of the memorial maker, matters too. Cathedrals have become significant interlocutors in online memorialisation during the pandemic – a role facilitated by strategic developments in recent years, which have redirected partnerships and heightened the sense that heritage, rather than religion, is a major public purpose.
The online book of remembrance Remember Me set up by St Paul’s Cathedral, which now contains over 10,000 memorial submissions, is the most prominent example of this. It is the first digital space in the UK to render a national symbolic site of memory in relation to an emerging disaster, but we can also point to Manchester Cathedral and Belfast Cathedral, which have created similar initiatives in relation to regional and devolved national experiences through their own partnerships. This development is part of the broader operation of heritage in the “the new mediascape”: we can see similar digital outputs for the centenary of the First World War, driven not only by the increasing digital strategies of museum work, but also by cultural institutions’ sense of relevance and an increasing focus on emotions as a mode of engagement. With their established authority in our national memory bank, these interlocuters have the power to shine through what Andrew Hoskins has described as the new grey of memory, the fog of data overload. Their influence on how we see COVID-19 going forward should not be underestimated.
Can these institutions respond to the special tasks of pandemic memorialisation? Expectations are markedly different to what they were a century ago. The value of individual human life and its equal moral worth is recognised and protected by law, which generates the raw emotion behind the rhetoric of “not a statistic”. Acceptance of the need to individualise deaths in response to shared and national tragedies is clear enough in the design of online “books of remembrance”. But memorialisation has also become a way of performing citizenship, articulating rights, and advocating for political change. The pandemic has confronted all of us with the bleakness of our social health inequalities. The substantially greater risks faced by Black and Brown health workers, and the higher rates of death in ethnic minorities, require not only acknowledgement but substantial social and political change. The public seem very united that these egregious inequalities highlighted by the pandemic are a pressing ethical concern.
St Paul Cathedral’s decision not to countenance politics within its memorial submissions, and its commitment to apolitical rhetoric so often attached to memorial spaces, suggests unwillingness to handle these issues overtly. This can backfire, as some conservative opinion has seemingly shown a greater warmth towards the National claims of Remember Me, which seems not to overtly demand justice, against that of the National Memorial Wall, where the cry for it is clearly apparent. Yet, in other ways, St Paul’s demonstrates that what might be seen as an establishment institution (the ‘top down’) manifests a popular, democratic appeal through digital media and generates consensus in new ways. The transformation of such institutions is also a motor for social change. Remember Me was grounded in Christian ethics and a tangible commitment to social justice. It built on its relationships with interfaith networks, as well as its established role in memorialisation of the Grenfell Fire. During COVID-19, it developed informal partnerships with bereavement charities and communities, such as the Yellow Hearts campaign.
Remember Me has not entirely achieved all its ambitions to present an interfaith and pluralistic space of remembrance, for reasons I will address elsewhere. There is clearly a diversity there, but there are also cultural biases and exclusions evident in its submissions. The functionalities of Twitter or Instagram do not seem to harness wider social solidarity or make the memorial ‘dialogic’ in a way that is so clearly seen in public memorials. However, a significant number of Remember Me submissions can be seen as justice-seeking – pushing us to recognise the equal value of elderly lives lost, for instance, or advocating for those who lived with the burden of dementia, an important co-factor in COVID-19 deaths. The traumas of isolated dying and grieving, too, are very evident in this memorial, as is a sense of family solidarity. If we apply those same estimates for bereavement (nine people for every one death), we might say that 90,000 people found meaning or solace in this memorial, and that socio-political action and expression was important to many of them.
We can see from this example, as well as the books of remembrance for George Floyd and Noah Donohoe, that institutions and local governments are becoming more responsive to important issues, such as racial injustice. Building inclusivity and diversity into digital memorial work, however, requires qualitative expertise, as well as technical decision making. There is still a considerable amount we don’t know about who engages with this genre of memorial, which is so deeply grounded in historic ideas of the nation, and who does not. The cultural responses seen in Remember Me are somewhat different to other comparable forms, such as online cemeteries. But there is a good deal we can learn about how social and cultural forces interact with, or are channelled by, the values, design, and communications choices made by multidisciplinary teams; and about the impact of such work on organisations and their staff. If cultural institutions have a role to play in future memorial work online, and there is every likelihood that their strategic directions will push them along this route, this demands a regrouping of expertise, as well as scrutiny.
Our individual digital afterlives are increasingly subject to debate. We must pay equal critical attention to the substance, design, and preservation of our collective afterlives.
 Verdery AM, Smith-Greenaway E, Margolis R, et al., referenced in Pearce C, et al. BMJ Open Access, 2021, estimated kin loss bereavement at nine people for every death.
 Dr Emily Harrop, “Grief and (dis)connectedness during Covid-19: findings from a national survey of people bereaved during the pandemic”, Connecting in the time of COVID-19, City University, 10 March.
 Prof. Andrew Hoskins, for instance, discusses Rafael Lozano- Hemmer’a A crack in the Hourglass, An ongoing COVID-19 Memorial (Brooklyn Museum) to unpack the relationship between memory and forgetting. Hoskins, ‘Forgetting Covid’, Connecting in a time of COVID-19, workshop at City University. 10 March 2022.