AI and the Afterlife: From Digital Mourning to Mind Uploading
As part of Theos’ research on death, Nathan Mladin looks at how the emergence of AI is shaping our relationship with death. 15/02/2024
Andrew Graystone reflects on our recent round table with industry professionals where we unpacked our work on death. 12/02/2024
Over the past 12 months, Theos researchers have been looking at changes in the ways that people in the UK think about death, dying, and the afterlife. We have published two research reports, Ashes to Ashes, and Love, Grief and Hope, with a third – on digital immortality –about to drop.
As part of this process, in late January, we invited a group of experts to take part in a round table discussion. They included senior church leaders, representatives of the funeral industry, and charity leaders. We discussed the changing ways in which communities attend to grief. We thought together about some of the trends in funeral practices, and what they mean. And we considered ways forward, both for faith groups and wider society.
A number of trends stood out for us.
The Church of England is just one of the religious institutions losing its ‘market share’ of funerals. The proportion of deaths marked by Church of England funerals fell from 37% in 2009 to 23% of funerals in 2019. Theos research indicates that this trend is likely to continue, with less that 50% of people polled saying that they want a funeral at all. Contributors at the round table felt that this was partly a reflection of the overall decline in religious affiliation. But it was also in part a local issue. If bereaved families know their local church ministers, and particularly if funeral directors have strong relationships with clergy, they are more likely to ask for their help in conducting a funeral. Is there more to be done in encouraging relationships between local churches and funeral directors?
Those who watch daytime television will be familiar with the idea of ‘direct cremations’ – where a body is removed from the place of death and taken to a crematorium without ceremony. As our report Ashes to Ashes noted, direct cremations now represent 18% of all funerals in the UK (according to the Sunlife ‘Cost of Dying’ report). The TV marketing of direct cremation encourages viewers that choosing direct cremation instead of a ‘traditional’ funeral will save their loved ones money that can be better spent in other ways. They are told that booking and paying for a direct cremation will avoid creating a fuss and a burden for family and friends (implying that traditional funerals are expensive and burdensome.). These factors appeal to exactly the reasons that respondents to our research gave when asked why they didn’t want a funeral.
There were differences amongst contributors to our round table about what exactly constitutes a direct cremation. But we were agreed that people who choose this ‘takeaway’ model of disposal, albeit for the best of reasons, risk circumventing painful but necessary stages in the grieving process for those left behind. Some
even had tales of people who had pre–booked their direct cremation without speaking to their loved ones, which could add to the stress and burden for those left behind. Almost no one in the group felt that the rise in direct cremations was welcome. Is there anything we could do to counter this trend?
Several funeral directors and ministers agreed that most people who come to them to arrange a funeral want the event to be a celebration of the individual’s life. That concurs with our research findings about what people want from their own funerals. But a celebration of life is not the only job a funeral can do. Delegates at our round table were keen to emphasise that funerals can also help those who are left behind to grieve – a vital and healthy part of losing a loved one. One delegate suggested that “We as a country have not understood grief.” Another pointed out that even the Church of England’s funeral rites don’t include recognition of the grief and mourning of those left behind. “We need to be re–equipped to mourn” said one delegate.
There is an overall movement towards death and its formularies being treated as an individual matter, rather than the business of the community. This is a long term trend: even the existence of funeral directors as a profession is part of this slow movement in society. “Togetherness matters”, said one delegate, “and the predictability of ritual.” Another delegate said, “Choice is hollow, if it doesn’t lead to meaning–making.” It was broadly agreed that good grieving processes contribute to mental wellbeing and community cohesion. Many of us when dealing with the events around a death in the family are not equipped to provide spaces and words to help each other grieve.
We recognised that as less funerals are conducted in traditional religious ceremonies, there is an increasing emphasis on bespoke services designed around the individual. Most people welcome this. It need not correlate with a shift from religious to secular ceremonies. Some people planning a funeral may not realise that many religious ministers are used to personalising funerals, as well as providing a liturgical structure for corporate grieving.
Some secular celebrants are excellent at supporting grieving families, while others have less understanding of their spiritual and psychological needs. Delegates at our round table were certain that religious professionals and faith communities continue to have a significant ministry to offer to those who are dying and those who are bereaved. This is not restricted to planning and leading funeral services, but walking the long journey of grief with those who are left behind. – providing what Ashes to Ashes calls “pastoral care and theologicial accompaniment” for the grieving. The provision of well trained and experienced ministers matters, and buildings that are open as quiet spaces for the expression of grief represent an important resource. Delegates regretted that the national churches don’t seem to be giving priority to this area of ministry, even though it is significant for the mission of local churches and their clergy. The loss of the Church of England’s Life Events team was widely regretted. They hoped that national church bodies would re–prioritise ministry to the bereaved. The area of grief counselling in the long and short–term is vital, but under–resourced.
There is a clear need for further public education to demystify death, dying and grief. As a group, we identified a number of areas where further research or resources would be welcome. The Theos animation Dying for Beginners was welcomed as an example of this. We felt there was a need for similar resources looking at funerals and grief.
There are issues for government as well as for the churches. One delegate suggested that the government should assign responsibility for death, dying and grief to a minister. The bereavement resource group AtaLoss is approaching the government with this suggestion. Several delegates felt that bereavement education should be adopted as a standard part of the school curriculum.
No one likes to talk about death. But the ways in which communities attend to grief affect the mental, social and spiritual well–being of the nation.
Thursday 15 February will see the launch of AI and the Afterlife: From digital mourning to mind uploading, the latest Theos report looking at ways in which technology is impacting death and dying.
Photo by Oană Andrei on Pexels
Andrew is the Public Engagement Lead at Theos. He has been a journalist and commentator, a BBC TV producer, and has also written and presented many programmes for BBC radio. He is the author of ‘Bleeding for Jesus’ (DLT, 2021), and ‘Faith Hope and Mischief’ (Canterbury, 2020).
Posted 12 February 2024
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.