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When Death, Commemoration, Technology and Design Get Together

In the past years, all sorts of ideas were raised, combining commemoration, design, architecture, technology, digital and virtual. 

In 2008, an article about Vidstone (which no longer exist) was published. 

They offered: 
"Utilizing ground-breaking solar-powered technology, this weather-proof LCD panel provides families and friends with a timeless way to commemorate a life that’s passed at one’s final resting place". 
Inspired by the movie Serenity and named after it. 

In 2009 a story went online about modern cemeteries in Japan: 

In 2010, e-tomb, a project by designers from China, won an international design competition
"A tombstone with Bluetooth and solar panels that stores your logs; friends and family can come over and access your virtual life from it and keep each other updated with anecdotes about you by uploading their stories to the tombstone". 

Sounds like a good idea - but to the best of my knowledge, it was never manufactured.  

In 2012 io9 published a story titled The Future of Graveyards, which includes bits about virtual graveyards and Interactive headstones.  

In 2013 an international competition was held: design for death. I spread the word among people I though might be interested in submitting a project to it: 

I admit I forgot to go back and look at the results and I thank Yoav Amir for reminding me to do so. Turns out there were several impressive ideas presented in it but the projects that caught my eye did not necessarily make it into the the winning entries list: 

Family Tree by two designers from China: 
"Family Tree is a contemporary family gravestone and ash storing device which offers people a revolutionary concept of burial and memorialization of the deceased. The design utilizes the image of a tree to symbolize family ties and intends to strengthen the concept of being together with family members.Each tree branch is an urn containing ashes of the deceased. After a family member passed away, his/her ash is to be put in the branch and fastened to trunk. The tree "grows" as members of the family passed away.In addition, Family Tree offers a new experience of memorializing the deceased. Apart from performing as an urn, each tree branch is a digital device storing personal information, memorable pictures, music and words of the deceased family member. While having a picnic under the Family Tree, family members may memorialize their loved ones by accessing those information digitally".

digital memorial cemetery by an Israeli designer: 
"If we examine the western cemeteries today we find that the way we perpetuate our dead takes a lot of space and eventually we sit in front of a stone trying to imagine the face and memories of our beloved person.Nowadays in a digital world, between Facebook, linked in, Twiter and all the other social networks, each person holds a lot of digital data and a digital personal internet profile.These facts led me to create a digital memorial cemetery. It is not an actual cemetery but it is a perpetuation place to mourn and remember the dead. The family and friends of a person who passed away can gather all the digital data they wish on one small memorial stick. The sticks are gathered in to a memorial archive or library; a neutral place to come and remember your beloved person, The scenario of use- By a quick computer search, you find the location of the requested memorial stick. The location is indicated by light, you take the stick to a separate memorialization room, there you can watch and listen to all the pictures, movies, songs or any other data. This way you mourn and remember your beloved when he is smiling in good and happy moments, it is a way to heal and cope with the loss in a positive point of view.The design of the memory stick and its stand creates the visual link between the traditional cemetery and the new future digital ones, furthermore the place of mourning remains public and neutral".

I love it, how designers from all over the world seem to understand the things I'm talking about!

A designer from Spain suggested digital remains
"My proposal its about digital remains. Today our digital activity its an important part of our lifes, social networks acounts, our own sites to express ourselves, our work, or just our thoughts about things... When someone died, whats happen with the deceaseds digital activity? Why is important to take care of the digital remains? It could be inappropiate, and painful to keep the deceaseds internet activity. And its our ecological responsability to clean it (Today, the cloud consumes the 5% of the worlds total energy).So... Why not provide digital-funerary services? It could be painfull to deal with all the deceaseds digital stuff... social network profiles... Why not centralize this kind of services? Its also an opportunity to process all the digital data into deceaseds memories. A commemorative document about the loved persons life. It cold be digital or a phiyical remember".

There are several websites offering similar services, you can see them listed in this post

This reminds me of the projects Audrey Samson, a Canadian artist-researcher, presented in 2014 in Canada, Hong Kong and the UK: Goodnight Sweetheart and
"Goodnight Sweetheart is a data and device embalming service. Devices are cast in liquid plastic and data is transferred to USB keys that are poured in epoxy. The service is a digital data funeral, a ritual to symbolically escape datafication and put our datafied selves to rest". 

But let's get back to the competition. A designer from the UK suggested cloud family grave
"Nowadays, people could remain a lot of data about their life such as pictures, videos, their own website, and blog using developed technology. These footprints of the deceased could be very valuable data that represents the age in which they lived and the life of their family. Cloud Family Grave is the medium that shows the life of ancestors and history of family to the future generations by remaining the deceased’s data as a scene of family history, not just disappear after the deceased pass away.< Cloud Family Grave service process> After a cremation, remained ashes are used for making a small memorial stone. It has a QR code which has the deceased’s fingerprint. All family members could access to the Cloud Family Grave that is a cloud computing service at anytime and anywhere through the QR code. Cloud Family Grave also has the data of other family members who passed away before so that the future generations could watch the life of them and learn history of family. Cloud Family Grave suggests that this cloud computing storage service and creating small memorial stone made with the deceased’s ashes as a ritual funeral process that creates the meaningful family grave".

A project by two designers from France is rip kit rest in peace keep in touch 
"When the current generation will die, it will be the first to have more personal information online than outline. This situation will revolution the deathcare, while the body will die, the profiles and the connections will remain. Will those information become memorials, confessions, heritages or avatars? RIP KIT is a design project that uses traditional stone and marble and connects the visitors to an online memorial through a QR code. RIP KIT uses classic materials with a new shape and function".

Which brings us to something which is being practiced - and in Japan, at least since 2008 - QR bar codes on headstones

Scanning the bar code will get you to a web site dedicated to the deceased, in his or her memory. This seems like the perfect solution - but not everyone will like having a code on the stone, and while such scanners are popular today, there is no guarantee they'll also be popular in the future. 

In 2014, Alison Killing gave a TED talk about architecture and death: 

The blog Death & Design is "A project exploring the use of design to create space for meaningful conversations about death, dying and life", by Common Practice, who aim to "Transform anxiety about dying into conversations about living". 

Another article well worth reading is "Death, Redesigned". 

Re.Designing Death - "Bringing Death to the Forefront of Innovation" is a community you might wish to also get acquainted with. 

In 2015 an artwork was presented at the "Science Gallery Dublin" by Karl Toomey, who, from a lifelogging point of view, presented this: 

Tweet by Denise Rushe

Tweet by Science Gallery Dublin

When asked "What do you want done with your data after you die?", Karl answered: "Save a copy on an external hard-drive and fire into space. Give another copy to science/medicine".

R.I.P.C. is an idea for digital commemoration by Or rigler, the CEO of a startup called Weave and a Social Network Analysis researcher who is now finishing his Master of arts at TAU: 
"People commemorate their memory in various ways and it's of high significance for them. One of the major ways for doing so is through burial, but burial as a solution loses its relevance in a world populated by seven milliard people. The modern person has a virtual persona: an avatar. Until recently this virtual persona was scattered and not unified, but today, tools such as Facebook help us consolidate this virtual persona in a worthy manner, and a human need becomes clearer for finding ways to commemorate it. My idea is to to create a three dimensional space to be managed by a company. Within that space a standard tombstone will be automatically allocated, to create norm and mass, and in that tombstone there will be a link leading to the avatar of that person. The company will create a platform linking commemorators who are interested in a more personal tombstone with a list of animators (for a commission). The company can also act as a "curator" for that information, in which case she'll buy it off the source and commit herself to its maintenance. Such maintenance will be for a fee and not defined by a time frame. Such a space will accumulate over the years a lot of information about people as a group, as individuals and in general". 

R.I.P.C. - first draft - Or Rigler 

R.I.P.C. - first draft - Or Rigler 

Or came up with the idea about five years ago, following the death of an acquaintance, who committed suicide: 

"Mutual friends kept talking about the activity in his Facebook profile after his death, mostly relatives lamenting. I refused to glimpse his timeline and in general found this subject to be quite morbid, but it got me thinking. Taking into account that people have a tendency to self commemoration, in addition to world population reaching, for the first time in history, such vast quantities - will burial keep being a possible solution? Already today burial grounds consume vast spaces. If an alternative won't be found, in two to three generations burial grounds could expand to more spaces than cities around the globe. And a slab of stone doesn't give you a solution to the virtual existence of the deceased". 

Or is thinking about developing this idea further as he believes in its potential from both a social and a financial perspective, and he'll be happy to collaborate. Readers of the blog are welcome to contact him by email: or via his Linkedin profile, if making this idea happen is something you'd like to take part in. 

November 2015 update: 
Another project well worth looking into is the Death issue of uncube, "a digital magazine for architecture and beyond". It doesn't have a Digital Death angle but it is a digital magazine and it does look into the combination of death, design and architecture in a spectacular way. 

November 2015 update: 
A new Death and Design competition has been launched - how exciting! All the details can be found here. "Award is 5000 GBP and a part-time residency at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol. Submit your proposals by January 8th 2015. Register for an application pack before December 5th 2015".

Are you familiar with other relevant interesting projects? Drop me a line, I'd love to hear about it! You can send me an email: or a private message in the blog's Facebook page


What Shall We Leave Behind?

I interviewed Yoav Silberstein, founder and CEO of Tic Tac Data Recovery, specializing in computer data recovery and salvaging services, to hear from him of real cases in which relatives of the deceased wanted to recover information lost with their loved one’s death:

“I estimate that close to 4,000 of our annual personal cases are a consequence of information loss due to death, mostly digital remains of the deceased.

Photo source: Tic Tac
One of the most moving cases we had was with the family of Lieutenant Nir Lakrif, who died in a helicopter crash - training accident - in 2010 in Romania. The family reached out to us in order to restore a memory card from his camera which crashed with him. In this case, the family felt as if they suddenly received a photographed greeting from him, eight months after his death. In addition to appeals such as this one, as can be seen in the Channel 2 News report (in Hebrew) for the restoration of a camera and a memory card that crashed in an aircraft, we receive, for example, requests to restore damaged laptops which crashed in cars with their owners. 
People turn to us for financial as well as emotional reasons. 
A widow came to us after her husband’s cardiac arrest. He managed their business and she had no idea who was indebted to them and who they were in debt to. She experienced a combination of helplessness coupled with a total dependence on an object she could not access due to her husband’s use of encryption on his computer.
There was a cell phone from The Carmel Disaster that was brought to us for restoration after it had been burnt. We were able to access a number of pictures that delighted and moved the phone owner’s loved ones because they did not exist anywhere else outside that burnt phone:

"Images from the cell phone burnt in the Carmel"
"The last souvenir"
"The late Ayala Ifrah’s phone, victim of The Carmel Disaster, was found on site | Only now, one year and seven months later, experts were able to restore the last photographs she took | Her mother: 'This is the phone Ayala used to call for help'"

We were able to restore the hard drive belonging to the Holtzberg couple who died in Mumbai in 2008, after it had been shot during the attack that killed them. As we can see in the Channel 2 News report (in Hebrew), for their relatives, the memories left in the pictures and videos that we restored were significant and moving.  
There are people who are happy when we are able to restore anything from their murdered child’s computer for example, so that they have it as a memento. Others break down when we are unable to restore everything. There are cases in which people are happy even with low quality restored images, because they feel as if they are able to “get into his/her head”, and some people break down and cry when restoration is not possible and describe their feeling as if their world has been destroyed.

Photo source: Tic Tac

Sometimes people with very sad stories come to us, and they don’t have the necessary technological knowledge to understand that unfortunately we can’t help them: when a computer/tablet is stolen or disappears and we are asked to restore what was there, we have to explain that is not how it works, that without the device we have no way of restoring information. 
I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to back up data. That way, even if the computer is stolen or destroyed, we have a chance to restore at least some of the things. 
Usually the sentence we hear from relatives are: ‘it’s very important to me’, ‘it’s an important souvenir’, ‘his/her texts are a treasure for me’, ‘I need this memory’, ’these are my souvenirs from him/her’. People who want keepsakes from murdered children come in a very emotional state and break down right here in the laboratory. Sometimes there are problems around complicated family situations: there were pictures of the child on the computer of one of the parents, and they are divorced - a disaster has struck and now the other parent wants the child’s pictures that were on the computer”.

All the cases described here are all true and touching but they are the minority. How many of us know someone who:
Died and their laptop crashed with them in the car and needed restoration?
Died and their camera crashed with them in the aircraft and a memory card needed restoring?
Died in a shooting and a bullet penetrated the computer resulting in a professional hard drive restoration in a laboratory?
Of course these cases exist and are awful, but they are not the majority.

On the other hand, we all know people who die, all the time, of various ages and circumstances, just because that’s the way it is.
And almost everyone nowadays has online accounts that are portals to rich digital and virtual worlds that they leave behind.
As we saw in the examples Yoav gave and as you can see from numerous examples from Israel and the world here, digital content that people leave behind after their death, especially writings and pictures, could be priceless to their loved ones – and/or of an actual monetary value.

As can be seen in a story on PBS in the USA in July 2014, it is also not age dependent. When his 73 year-old mother died, her son knew she had two accounts – twitter and Yahoo. After 20 hours of searching, he found she had 13 online accounts.

Based on information published by Experian in 2012:
“The average Briton now has 26 different online accounts with 25-34-year olds being the most prolific, with no fewer than 40.1
I assume that the average Israeli internet user has tens of accounts.
If the laboratory receives a few thousand physical digital restoration cases, I assume online restoration cases are more numerous, only this type of information has not been collected yet.

If people burst out crying and have a hard time dealing with the loss of pictures and texts of loved ones that were stored in a physical location, I assume people will have a similar reaction to the loss of pictures and texts of loved ones stored in a cloud, and there are many examples here.
If the computer/phone/tablet has limited space for texts/pictures, then our online accounts have much larger quantities stored in it:  huge amounts, almost unlimited. Which means the potential loss here is much larger because in most cases, people do not leave a detailed list of the accounts they hold along with lists of their usernames and passwords.

If you know your privacy is important to you after your death and you would not like your accounts accessed posthumously – some or all of them – that’s fine. It’s a legitimate wish and should be respected. Just leave instructions to this effect.
In most cases, this is not the case: people do not leave this information behind simply because they don’t think about it. Here is another example from a 2013 TV report in the USA:

Sad update 31/7/14:
Screenshot from Lilah Argaman’s Facebook profile, sister of Liad Lavi who was killed in Operation “Protective Edge”, illustrates exactly what I am talking about:

"The brothers connected Liad’s cell phone hard drive and we found a treasure. Thank you"

"What Shall We Leave Behind?" was first published in the Hebrew version of the blog in July 2014. I thank Gali Halpern Wienerman from the bottom of my heart for volunteering to translate it to English. I simply can't do everything by myself. If you wish to assist as well, here is how you can help too


Why Am I Saying Facebook's Legacy Contact Isn't A Good Enough Solution

When I wrote about the Legacy Contact feature arriving in Israel (post in Hebrew), I mentioned it wasn't a good enough solution, and I was asked why. Here is my answer, which I originally posted in Hebrew, but thought might interest the English readers as well. 

The Legacy Contact feature is an important step in the right direction, but the solution it offers isn't good or comprehensive enough, because: 

  • You can't determine that your profile won't be memorialized after your death. 
  • Once a profile is memorialized it can't be accessed, even if you have the correct username and password. Facebook doesn't allow bequeathing neither the password nor a way to access the profile in full, even if those are the wishes of the deceased - the person that this is his or her profile. 
  • Once a profile is memorialized, pages created by the person that this is his or her profile are deleted, if he or she were the sole admin of that page. You can't nominate a Legacy Contact to a page, and valuable information could be gone irrevocably with the page's deletion - including information that could have financial or business implications. 
  • The person nominated to be the Legacy Contact doesn't have authorization to delete posts from the timeline of the deceased, if posted after his or her death. So if the deceased was tagged in an ad or someone wrote something hurtful on their timeline, the best the Legacy Contact can do is report it, and hope Facebook will untag / delete when a member of their staff will get around to viewing the report. 
  • The person nominated to be the Legacy Contact doesn't have authorization to add a Follow button, if the deceased hadn't added one while he or she were still alive. I think that's a pity, cause people might be interested in following up - without becoming friends. 
  • The person nominated to be the Legacy Contact doesn't have authorization to open the timeline for posting if the deceased closed it while he or she were still alive.  I think that's a pity, cause people will probably want to share stories, pictures and memories, and they will be limited to doing so only in the comments of the last post uploaded before the profile was memorialized. 

In general I have a problem with the current system, in which anyone can report anyone as deceased, and by doing so memorialize the profile without even realizing neither the implication to this act (in most cases) nor what the wishes of the family of the deceased are. I also have a problem with the fact that Facebook doesn't communicate with the users directly about this, and just expects them to hear about this feature from the media. 

I wanna take this opportunity to once again urge you to NOT notify Facebook about someone passing away. Leave it to the family. Should they wish it, they'll contact Facebook directly about memorializing or deleting the profile, I assure you. 

November 2015 update: 
A sad example to what might happen to a memorialized profile: Facebook refuses to remove pictures of the deceased with her murderer - and ex-boyfriend, and her family is locked out of it and can't remove the offending pictures themselves, resulting in the family avoiding her profile altogether as it causes them (understandable!) distress. 

Pictures of the late Hollie Gazzard with her killer, Asher Maslin,
still present in her Facebook profile