Bull Session

Digital Afterlife

March 17, 2016          

Episode Summary

This week on The Digital Life we discuss how death, burial, and remembrance is changing as it intersects with technology.

A host of factors, from demographic shifts and an increasing population to lack of land space and environmental concerns, are changing the ways in which we remember the departed.

For instance, in a downtown Tokyo temple, Ruriden, a futuristic graveyard space, features thousands of glowing glass Buddha statues. Each of these statues will eventually represent a deceased person and visitors can use a swipe card to easily locate the correct statue corresponding to their deceased family member or friend. The selected statue glows a different color when the visitor arrives.

From green cemeteries burying bodies equipped with a global positioning device to virtual graveyards and digital memorials, death and burial are changing as the digital life gives way to the digital afterlife.

Welcome to episode 147 of the Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Howdy, Jon.

Dirk, today, we’re going to talk about a crazy topic, maybe a little.


Yeah. This week, we’re going to talk about how deaths, burial, and remembrance is changing as it intersects with technology. I know the show I called the Digital Life. Today, we’re going to talk about the digital afterlife a little bit. I wanted to start out with laying the groundwork talking about some of the factors that are driving change in innovation, however you want to frame it up, in the 21st Century starting with there’s a lot more people on the planet and a lot more planet are living in cities. Those are two undeniable trends.

Additionally, there are demographic shifts in different nations that make traditional burial rites no longer sustainable for various reasons. As more people are living in cities, there’s necessarily also a lack of space, at least in the areas where most people are. Then, finally, we’re starting to tune into a variety of environment concerns that come along with something like burial which can involve all kinds of artificial materials, be they plastics, just things that aren’t going to degrade over time.

These factors come together in such a way that it’s really influencing how people are thinking about being buried, or cremated, or what have you, and then, also how they’re going to be remembered by their friends, their family, their offspring in the years that follow their passing. That’s where things like the digital space that we talked about all the time, that comes into play as well because as you well know, there’s lots of information about us that we update regularly in cyberspace and certainly, that’s information that may exist long after we’re gone.

I wanted to start with an example of innovation, for a lack of a better word, in this space which is actually happening in Tokyo, Japan. There’s a futuristic graveyard space that belongs to this Buddhist temple in downtown Tokyo. The space is called Ruriden. It’s basically this very beautiful, almost ceremonial and sacred space that just has thousands of these glass Buddha statues. Each statue represents a person who either has passed or has been reserved that spot. They glow in different lovely colors.

This huge installation, as you can imagine, these thousands of statues all glowing with LED light. Then the remains of the person is stored nearby although certainly, not in the exact spot as the statue but nearby. There’s a swipe card that a person who, whether it’s a relative or a friend, can have encoded with their loved one’s information so the specific Buddha statue will glow representing that person when you come to remember that person at this space.

What that solves for a lot of people is that there’s no longer all of the trappings that come along with a gravesite in Japan which involves costly maintenance. It’s a piece of real estate in a very expensive market that needs to be shouldered by the family, those expenses ongoing presumably for as long as a family is around. Additionally, it still gives that location, that sacred space, where someone can go and remember a person. Even though the person’s not there, it gives them a place to meditate on that or what have you.

I thought this Ruriden Temple space was a good example of how our burial rites are changing and how it’s still providing that interaction that people want, that meditative space but in a totally different way, and leveraging some technologies that are in pretty unique ways. I have some other examples but I wanted to pause to see what your thoughts were on that space in Tokyo.

I think it’s an interesting story but I don’t know that it’s all that new or unique. My grandparents, for example, died in 1995. They are buried in a traditional plot with, it’s not a headstone that comes out of the ground but it’s flat to the ground, carved metal of some kind, the traditional thing. In this same facility with the facility being a large open green space, there’s also a building. Inside the building are smaller installations on a wall that frankly, other than lacking neon and Buddhas, look very similar to what they’re doing in Japan.

I’m not sure. From my perspective, I’m not sure that it’s all that new and different from what already has been happening from the standpoint of either accommodating or having ran out of space, trying to fit more people, fit more remembrances into a smaller space and/or more cheaply whether their space are not having a low dollar option to memorialize. To me, the difference is in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried, the people inside that building still get the stone, the metal, or the carve traditional. With this place in Japan, it’s glow-in-the-dark Buddhas but beyond that, to me, it’s not very different.

Yeah. The space that you’re describing certainly has both the traditional and then, as you described, the less costly options.

The modern.

Right. Cost is a factor. Certainly, when there’s more space available, I’m sure that the grave plots cost quite a bit less versus now where real estate is increasingly at a premium. I think there’s this interesting intersection between the digital and the physical. In the Tokyo temple that we talked about, they have the swipe card which specifies that Buddha that represents the loved one.

Instead of a book where you find the name and see where to go.

Sure, but if you think about that in a virtual sense, that is still a physical space. If that’s a waypoint on the way to having virtual memorials, you think about right now, there’s this slow disengagement from the physical remains and the remembrance. The remembrance is still very important because, of course, that’s for the living. That’s for the people who are remembering a loved one which is, of course, the point in this in the first place.

That’s not always the point. A lot of people pay for and plan their memorials for their own purposes when they’re alive as opposed to for the loved ones who come after. Thinking of both ways.

Right. I think what I’m reflecting on here is that as we decouple these two things which are the physical remains which are stored in one place and then, the virtual remembrance, I think there’s an interesting thread there mainly because we have all this digital information. On the much more garish side of the coin, I’ve seen some examples of embedding, say, video in the tombstone or whatever so you could have the person’s face or whatever when you go to visit them. There’s the Harry Potter, the hologram of the person or whatever it is in Harry Potter, the spirit, and that you can interact with that in a limited fashion.

I think, as we develop technologies that enable, at least, some manifestation of that person’s, be it their face or the way they look when they were a certain age, I think there is going to be this gradual separation of the remembrance part from the physical part which is going to become ever more difficult to sustain for all the reasons that we cited at the beginning of this story. I think this is the first step. Maybe those steps have already been in place but I think these are tangible steps towards that happening where remembrance and physical remains are no longer tied together quite so tightly.

Yeah. It’s certainly transitional right now. We see the remembrance played out in places like Facebook where someone’s Facebook account, they passed away, and a family member or something will capstone it with some content. Then, it’s just left out there to float, I guess, and people could still come and interact with it and see it, but over time, it decays and nobody is really going there anymore. There are certainly examples of that in the virtual right now, I think.

What’s that’s going to look like long term, I’m not sure. There’s this myth of forever. There’s this myth of permanence that we really buy into as a species. A number of episodes ago, I read the poem, I was a Man They Aspire, by Lord Byron. We still have those. Part of the traditional, physical headstone, and big, and weighty is the idea of forever that that stone is going to be there and it’s this thing that’s going to keep me going there forever.

The reality is since the beginning of recorded time, graveyards are built over and dug up. Once they reach a point where there aren’t that many people, once it’s full, and there’s not many people still alive who visit and care about who’s there anymore, the people who are living that remains of our species of civilization long after pulls it up and rolls forward. There’s very, very few permanent either physical representations or remembrances. It’s really for our species, only the very recently deceased and departed or those who had such an outsized influence on their nation, their religion, whatever the correct affiliations may be.

One of the things I’m optimistic about is that we’ll become … A lot of the myths that we have bought into during this time of stone age ignorance are going to be behind this, I think, in the decades ahead. By the year 2100, let’s say, I think they’ll gone. Totally gone, and people would laugh and think it was crazy that we had these things. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is forever.

I can remember very clearly that I used to, “God, I don’t want to die. How can I live forever? How can I not be forgotten?” as a teenager or young adult. I don’t want to say teenager. It struck me that at some point, Julius Caesar, and I don’t know why him, but at some point, Julius Caesar will no longer be remembered. Through some confluence of circumstances, there will no longer be any representation connection back to this famous, iconic Roman Emperor who perhaps is the most famous of all.

For me, that really disabuse me of the notion that I could ever achieve any kind of permanence nor that that should really be something that was very important to me but I think that, in general, we, humans, still have that notion. We still seek it. We still buy into it. It’s just a myth. It’s just nonsense. All of these examples are just more failed attempts.

You know what? What I will say is that the most successful examples, if we’re talking about remembrance and burial, for me, are the older ones, not the newer ones. What I’m going to cite here is from my wife’s family. She was born in a small farming village in Germany, way out in BFE. It’s an hour away from Kaiserslautern which is a decent-sized city but nobody in US knows where the hell Kaiserslautern is. That’s the big city that this house was a reference point.

We are out in the middle of nowhere and her family, they’ve lived there in generation, and generation, and generation, they’ve had a family burial plot as does everyone else in this village for centuries, for hundreds of years. I don’t know the physics of how it works but you die, and you’re buried, or you’re put on top, or next to, or however it works. It’s not sprawling outward. You have this small, contained space. I am thinking somehow, you’re just getting layered on top.

I don’t know, it’s weird, but it’s this one magnet that you can come to that has more permanence by virtue of the fact that it keeps going. It continues to have new utility and new usefulness for the newest and most modern generations. As such, it maintains its relevance and it maintains its presence. In the process, it ties back into this thread of great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfathers and grandmothers that otherwise would be long gone.

I think it’s in that, it’s almost more eastern, this idea of staying as a unit. In the US, we’re so about individualism, and we go off, and we move across the country, we start our own life. Then, we die and our life is lived in a place that’s completely divorced from our family and those that came before us. That lends itself to being forgotten, to not being part of a longer thread, of a whole that is greater than the self.

I thinks the answers that we’re looking for, the answers that are healthy, and correct, and sustainable really go back to those older models. The question is, how can the digital world adapt and represent those in the best way? I have no issue with the glowing Buddhas, and the swipe card, and all the stuff that they’re doing in Tokyo but that’s a very short term and temporary solution. In 200 years, that little thing isn’t still going to be there. It’s going to be long gone. The question is, what’s the right balance? Acknowledging that permanence is a myth to begin with, what is the right balance and the right way of representation of the departed?

Right. Yeah, that’s a lot that you looked at there. I think there’s an interesting, maybe it’s not a problem set but there’s an interesting factor for us as 21st Century people which is we have all this data that can also be preserved in some fashion. Certainly, there is plenty of data beforehand but it was stored in not very easily transferable means. I have these fantastic water color paintings that my great grandparents did. They were fine artists, really good at it. I have some of those and those are delightful to have.

At the same time, I know that people of our generation are going to have scads of digital detritus, basically, that could be attached in some way to a family digital plot. I don’t know if there would be any reason to preserve that life other than for maybe some ancestral research in the future but we certainly have that as an asset that can be preserved in some way even if our bodies are not. That adds an interesting wrinkle to both the remembrance and the ability of future generations to understand the ones right prior. I don’t know what that means but it’s certainly there now.

No, that’s right. My personal website, I have a lot of professional things but I also have a lot of personal things. The reason I’ve done that actually is for a record for my future generations. My theory is that genetically, they’re going to share a lot with me and some proportion of them will be wired like me in different ways. My thinking is if they could come to us and see what was I thinking about, and what was I doing, and how did I view the world when I was 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, then that could be a valuable reference point, something that helps them to better understand themselves, better understand how they fit into the world, and better understand how to live their lives.

When I first started to do it, I had the notion of forever with it as well. It’s like, “This will be out there forever.” It’s not like a book that one person is going to have. Maybe my daughter will take it and her kids will be nothing like me, and they’ll have this thing like, “What the hell is this?” It won’t be relevant to them but this thing, if it’s on the internet, it could be distributed and anybody who is N generations down the road could come to this and go and look at it but that was silly because it’s on the WordPress.

Where’s WordPress going to be in 50 years, 100 years, 500 years? The whole platform is going to not be relevant anymore. I’m creating this thing with this notion of permanence, I think, with very thoughtful and well-meaning intentions of impacting future generations of mine and maybe the people I’m not related to and I don’t know, but it’s just going to blow up for some change in technology or infrastructure that is not predictable. That’s frustrating because, for me, it’s less about being remembered per se, and it’s more about looking at it as if I’m a machine. I’ve learned a great deal in my life and I feel that I have the ability to communicate it in transferable ways, not the old person saying, “You got your vegetables’ way.”

I think I can make the lives of some future people better in ways that will make them better citizens and better parts of society in civilization and will make the world better. I don’t think we do much of that as a culture, certainly, and as a species either. I think it would be wonderful if we could figure out ways to transfer our learnings, transfer our gray hairs during our life to other people in ways that they can really use it. I don’t know.

Maybe now, I’m going a little bit off track but I have very much. People say, “What if you get three wishes,” and that kind of stuff. If I had wishes, it would all be about going back to relatives who were dead that I’m aware of. I want to ask them questions and understand how they looked at the world. I want to understand what they dealt with. I know that that data will just make me so much more well, and helpful, and full of the best possible things. That’s not possible but is there some way that I can use technology as a proxy for myself to offer that for the people who come after me. I am not optimistic but I’m hopeful. I am certainly putting in time and effort trying to create the data and the record that could be leveraged in that way.

Yeah, I think that the personal blog that you put together, what I’ve read of it, I think accomplishes just that and we’ll just have to hope that it can be maintained in some kind of a format for you.


Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com. That’s just one L in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you’ve liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com That’s G-O-I-N-V-O-dot-com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me, drik@goinvo.com.

That’s it for Episode 147 on the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett. We’ll see you next time.

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