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2.3 Is this the death of death?

The businesses capitalising on our search for immortality

Life after death

Keanu Reeves took viewers of the Late Show by surprise in 2020 with his earnest reply to a tongue-in-cheek question: ‘what happens to us when we die, Keanu?’

Many in his place would have given an equally good-humoured answer — especially during a John Wick Three promotion cycle (which spurred complaints at a reduced kill count from 128 in Chapter Two to a measly 94). But Reeves returned with one simple sentiment — ‘the ones who love us, will miss us’.

Death may be a deeply individual experience, but in post, its impact is broader.

The after-death market is one framed outside of ourselves — comprised of practices and processes that leave something behind; not just for the dead, but for those who live on to remember them, too.

In our third and final installation of Forethoughts 2.0: The Business of Death, we’ll be exploring life after death; the innovations that are defining the future of the industry, and the evolving technology that seeks to reimagine our relationship with grief. Because while every lifetime has an end, the lengths many companies will go to capitalise off it doesn’t seem to.

Back from the dead

Yes you read that correctly. Until this point in time, death being finite was a relatively universal experience (to atheists, at least). But recent developments in AI technology are beginning to blur these lines, reintroducing the passed into reality in ways that are both comforting and (more often than not) creepy.

Storyfile, for example, is a tool under development that enables live and interactive Q&A’s at funerals. The catch? They’re hosted by the deceased. It’s a strange concept that received understandably mixed reviews when unveiled — at the funeral of the mother whose son crafted the technology, no less.

Described by some as a ‘Black Mirror-esque failure to read the room’, Amazon’s Alexa has also introduced a feature that allows the speaker to mimic voices of the deceased — designed to allow some of their featured stories to be read by late-grandparents to their grandchildren.

But nothing trumps the ‘journey to digital immortality’ fronted by AI up-and-comer Eternime, who are devoted to crafting online ‘avatars’ that are able to collect your thoughts and memories, and continue living independently on your behalf after death.

Image source.

A concept interesting in theory as unsettling in practice, it leaves us with a final question — do our personas belong to us in death? Or are we genuinely accountable to comfort the people we leave behind?

The performance of a lifetime

It’s a debate that has been rife since Tupac’s unexpected appearance at Coachella in 2012 — a performance made even more significant by the fact it occurred approximately 18 years after his death in 1996 via hologram.

Progress, or pure exploitation — celebrity holograms pose important questions about business ethics in entertainment, with the ownership of legacy at the centre of the conversation. Are we not only entitled to an artist’s discography after their passing — but their identity too? With a 2019 Amy Winehouse hologram tour put on indefinite hold after an inability to find ‘a way to ‘remember her legacy in [a] celebratory and respectful way”, we think the answer (and the bottom line) is as transparent as the people they’re set to depict.

Image source.

Gif of Tupac hologram life at Coachella

Mechanised memoriam

But clarity in death ethics aren’t always so black and white. It’s hard to believe an industry as intimate as the business of death could be automated, but brands such as Empathy are breaking the mould — using AI as a ‘force of good’ for grieving families. Through their ‘Finding Words’ technology, the brand writes automated, personalised obituaries on behalf of the bereaved — allowing those suffering a loss to focus not on the admin, but the emotion of grieving instead. An audience divided, the product has been both highly regarded and firmly rejected for its lack of personal investment.

It’s hard to believe an industry as intimate as the business of death could be automated.

But in Japan, this personal touch is becoming even further removed, with automation in the after-death sphere taken to extremes through the use of ‘ending marketplace’ automatic graves. These products provide a ‘just-in-time, drop box delivery system’ designed to lessen the strain on children dealing with a dominant ageing population and fewer resources for social caring. A business that calls into question the importance of a ‘final resting place’, it leaves us asking, what’s the price of modern burials — convenience for the living, or comfort for the dead?

A second life

While emotional legacies are prioritised in death, we rarely consider the physical counterpart. Conservationist businesses are redefining what it means to ‘live on’ after death, selling-in eco-conscious burials that are not only changing the definition, but the outcome, of modern graveyards.

The accessibility of sustainable death alternatives are growing rapidly. With anything from biodegradable urns to Treepod capsules to even ‘reef ball’ memorials encouraging potential buyers to consider not just the immediate impact of their passing — but the long-term environmental consequence. Expanding their after-death experience to one that flourishes, rather than fades, with time.

So, could this be the death of death itself? In a traditional sense, maybe.

The end?

Innovation in the after-death market has the potential to greatly alter our relationship with and expectations of a practice that has been relatively unchanged for centuries. To some, disruption in death will be a great comfort, to others it’ll be a one way ticket into the depths of the uncanny valley. And it’s a difficult divide to cross when personal post-mortem requests become public representations.

As our Forethoughts 2.0: Business of Death series comes to a close, it’s clear that the future of the industry has left us with more questions than answers. While we may never come to a conclusion as to whether our legacies belong to the dead or the living pre and post-passing, one thing is certain — companies’ continued drive to capitalise off it is as sure as death itself.