Go digital or just go on screen?
Why digital funerals need to embrace the format.
We had albums we loved because albums were always a format.
There was almost no limit to what an artist could do within an album but the word ‘almost’ was no accident in the sentence. From the outset there was a physical limit to how much music could fit on the vinyl, or tape, or CD and that critical constraint defined the format no matter who took on recording music. We loved what some artists did with it, and hated what others did. ‘It’ could not be changed.
Until it could. Now the physical format is no limit.
We can stream music. We still talk about albums but really just as an elevated word for a release, a bit like the idea of a specials menu in a restaurant. On Bandcamp you can subscribe and be pulsed new music from an artist whenever they feel like it, composers can write music to sleep to through the night, and there’s hardly any need for a live recording when you can just dive into a real gig from the artist’s front room to yours.
Digital music isn’t just albums online, its a new format altogether.
When something first gets digitised we tend not to test the limits of what the new digital format will be. We just stick the analogue thing onscreen. We get bank statements in an app, before we get open banking and straight-through mortgage applications. We get buying computer games online before we get multi-player gaming. We get buying a betting slip online before we get in-play betting.
So too a global pandemic means a lot of families have experienced a digital funeral. Except they haven’t really. Not yet.
Digital Funerals and What’s in the Market So Far
There are a range of companies trying to support families when they can’t all be together for the funeral.
Right now that is the frontier. Here are some of them.
Gathering Us has some glowing testimonials so it seems they have genuinely made the process of organising online funerals simpler. That said the whole model is the digitisation of the pre-existing format - making access to an analogue funeral possible through a screen.
This is progress but is there no more than this that digital can add?
Afterword think so and even offer specially trained hosts to put together and run the funeral online. Which in turn makes you realise how peculiar it is that more religious and civic organisations have not put more into formally training their own people. The technical and format differences between running an on-person vs. online event are marked.
You can see the benefit of what Afterword are offering. Not least as their imagery seems to focus on these lone figures wandering through graveyards. It all infers their focus is on the one person left to be the organiser of the service - making sure a good job is done but mostly just trying to minimise the trauma.
What if the attendees need not just be passive? Can a digital funeral be more participatory?
LifeWeb360 is a smart attempt to do that, and uses digital tools to create an experience for a community of loved ones to be a part of. In a way they are taking conversations that might have happened at a wake, bringing them into one story, and capturing them in one digital space that anyone who cares can access.
This feels like a little sliver of what the future might be like. Though how often is a community’s memory of someone really just the one story? Here we have the opportunity for everyone to come together and tell the story one way. But how many lives end up with everyone who cares about you seeing the way everything panned out the same way?
Farewelling has many similar ideas, with the exception that they are much more focussed on selling their product through traditional funeral homes than going direct to families. Also though they have one twist of their own.
Farewelling gives resources to us to get in early and shape our own funeral and other plans for after we’re gone. Not as some maudlin exercise in self-pity but as a positive and de-mystified process we should go through to make sure things happen right.
Which speaks to the heart of what truly digital services for end of life might become.
The next generation of the digital funeral
The new format will not mean that people all do the same thing as each other. Probably it means the opposite of that. The new format just won’t have the same constraints.
Funerals become something that you might more easily design for yourself certainly, or might design for the experience of the people you leave behind. They are likely to become more shared experiences, though maybe not just as a morose shared facebook wall. As they become more connected, they are likely to become more a part of a journey than the broadcast of an event.
When will it happen?
The new format has not taken route yet and we are very much in the first stage of a digitisation process.
We have though just seen mass, global adoption of what exists - which will be unlikely to be fully unravelled. Which in turn means a lot more people will be starting to spot how to make things better.
The new format might not be that far away.