I’ve been writing a fair bit about death in the past few months—not to say I’m an expert, but I quite like the idea of qualifying myself as one. Have you ever wondered what should happen to your social media profiles after you die? Or even what the best way to prepare yourself for death is? Well, I did. But now, in the midst of the rise of death wellness, another surprising trend is appearing—tech startups are getting involved in the funeral business. So what exactly am I talking about, and is this whole death trend getting a bit ridiculous?
Coeio is probably one of the most famous tech startups in the funeral business. Remember when former Beverly Hills 90210 actor Luke Perry died last year? Shortly thereafter, his daughter revealed that the actor was buried in a biodegradable mushroom suit from Coeio. The ‘infinity burial suit’, although suit might not be the best way to describe the strange-looking black bodysuit, is made entirely of mushrooms and other small organisms, and was designed to help decompose remains into nutrients that return to the earth.
Coeio’s mission is simple: to reduce dead people’s environmental impact by cleansing the body of toxins that would otherwise have seeped into the ground by feeding them to fungi, all this with a $1,500 (£1,140) suit. For many, the price for an eco-friendly decomposition might seem over the top, but the fungi suit seems to be one of the cheapest options the funeral market has to offer.
When pop star Prince died in 2016, his body was cremated and his ashes were put in a personalised urn—a mini replica of his house in Minnesota—designed by the 3D printing company Foreverence. What about James Doohan, also known as the actor who played ‘Scotty’ in the original Star Trek, who died in 2005? Celestis, a Houston-based company that specialises in sending urns into space made three attempts before succeeding and sending his ashes into orbit. My point is, the funeral business has proved itself to be very creative (if you can afford these kinds of extravagances).
From creating a personalised tombstone to transforming your ashes into a diamond, you can almost do it all. And there’s a reason for it—according to research conducted by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), cremations and funerals are big businesses in the UK, with the traditional funeral market making £2 billion a year.
As taboo as the topic of death can be, it seems that things are changing, and rapidly. In a market that has forever been dominated by old-fashioned funeral companies, tech startups now see an opportunity to offer new solutions for lower prices to people who may not afford traditional burials in the first place. Not only do burials and cremations hurt the environment, but they also cost a lot of money. Surprisingly, being able to afford your own death (and what comes with it) is harder than what I had expected.
According to a SunLife research about the ‘cost of dying’, meaning the price of a basic funeral plus extras like the send-off and professional fees, it has had a 3.1 per cent increase in just one year and a rise of 42 per cent since 2007. In 2019 in the UK, the average cost for a standard funeral is £4,417. As a result, in the UK, low-income families struggle to even afford a funeral.
The funeral market is booming right now, and tech startups getting involved in it is proof that the way we proceed with funerals needs an update. But as much good as this can mean for the planet, this should also shed light on how absurd the reality is: many people can’t afford to die.
No one lives forever, that’s a fact that everyone can agree with—at least for now. While most of older generations haven’t produced enough digital data to have ‘digital remains’ after their death, most of Gen Z and below will leave an enormous bulk of data through their social media after they’re gone. Creepy? Maybe, but more and more companies want you to start embracing the idea of a digital afterlife. Who should have control over someone’s social media pages is the real problem here, and it is one that just keeps on growing.
A few days ago, a study conducted by researchers Carl Öhman and David Watson from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) showed how quickly Facebook’s user base could be outnumbered by dead users. Öhman and Watson predicted that by 2050, there would be more accounts that belonged to deceased users than living, active people on Facebook.
Most people, when planning their legacy, will think about their possessions and their finances. What about all the different versions of ourselves we’ve scattered everywhere online? What about your hard-drive backups? Digital lives are immortal, so figuring out what will happen to them while you’re still alive is beneficial, but to understand what can be done, we first need to know what happens to accounts of deceased people.
Even though this is a rather new concept, some of the big social media websites like Facebook already offer some form of ‘death planning’. You have two options: the first one is to set your account to delete everything once Facebook is notified of your death by someone. The second option is picking someone close to you as your ‘legacy contact’. This special someone will then be able to write a post pinned at the top of your page, accept friend requests and even update your profile picture. The only thing they won’t be able to access are your messages, so your little secrets will be safe.
This is what Facebook calls a memorialised account, a place where your close ones can have a browse and remember you. Memorialised profiles can’t pop up in your timeline to avoid causing any distress by reminding you of the deceased’s birthday for example. Instagram only recently followed the movement and now also offers to memorialise someone’s account after receiving a valid request.
After their research, the OII wanted Facebook to invite historians to find a way to curate our digital data post-mortem. What we leave behind when we pass away should be looked at as heritage to the next generations and a possible way of helping them understand their history. Not only should historians analyse this data, but they should approach it as something different than traditional historical data.
In 2018, researcher Hossein Rahnama started working with an unnamed CEO on a special digital avatar. This one would serve as a virtual ‘consultant’ when the actual CEO passes away. Rahnama is now implementing this idea into an application called Augmented Eternity. By using all your digital data—how you communicate and interact with others online—algorithms can recreate your personality and reactions to anything. This may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but our technology will soon be able to achieve this, so we can sort of live forever on our social media platforms.
At the moment, people’s digital legacy is in the hands of companies like Facebook—private companies guided by what is best commercially and not historically. A single commercial company holding what is now the largest archive of human behaviour should be carefully watched and some thoughts need to be put into how this data should be stored and used after people’s death. Who knows, we might learn a lot from all these likes and embarrassing pictures.
So Facebook, the ball is in your court.