The Future Cemetery

In April 2012, I started a new project that asked a not-so-easily-answered question related to both the past and future: What can 21st century cemeteries become?

Over 170 years ago, Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, England opened its metal gates. In the ensuing decades, it has handled approximately 300,000 deceased individuals (roughly 1/3 the population of Bristol city), either through burial or cremation. It remains a working cemetery in 2012 and covers 45 acres near the city centre. Similar to many other urban, 19th century Victorian era cemeteries, Arnos Vale is closely tied to Bristol's social history, but that rich cultural heritage does not limit Arnos Vale's embrace of future technology.

In April 2012, I started a new project that asked a not-so-easily-answered question related to both the past and future: What can 21st century cemeteries become?

The project was quickly named the Future Cemetery, and it involved three partners: the University of Bath's Centre for Death and Society (where I am based), Calling the Shots media in Bristol (represented by Jeremy Routledge) and Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust (represented by Felicia Smith). The Future Cemetery's guiding principles emerged during the project's initial design: "We all know that death is in the future. We just want to make the future more visible."

In a nutshell, the Future Cemetery took Arnos Vale Cemetery and turned it into a multi- media platform, both literally and figuratively. Since one of our key goals was to make death more visible to the general public, the Future Cemetery worked with designers, multi-media artists, theatre performers, creative technologists, computer programmers, and app creators to transform Arnos Vale into an open source, end-of-life discussion and technology platform.

We began rapid prototyping a Future Cemetery.

One of the key reasons that I wanted to work on the Future Cemetery project was that it addressed an important but overlooked subject: how technology continues to alter human perceptions of death, dying, and the dead body. This is not to say that postmortem technological determinism is running rampant, rather it is important to understand how the emergence of 19th century preservation technologies (for example embalming and photography) altered human perceptions of death.

So, for example, the use of embalming in the United States and the practice of photographing the dead body in postmortem "sleeping" images fundamentally altered how the public perceived death. This industrial era, technological mediation never really went away, it simply established roots that we find traces of in the 21st century. The use of social media websites and networks after a person dies, such as Facebook and Twitter, represent two recent innovations on this older platform. A person need only look at the early history of the telegraph line to see how communication technologies became rapidly used to signal an individual's death.

The Future Cemetery took the legacy of these older, industrial age technologies and began exploring how to develop a new interactive platform that used a narrative driven technological format. It was important, everyone agreed, that stories drove the technologies and not the other way around. We added a third component, which focused on using discussions and storylines about death to help shape the master design. We then built sound installations, light projections, live action theatre pieces, and augmented reality apps around those stories.

In our trial runs, we found that audiences enjoyed the interactive elements but also appreciated the opportunity to think about and discuss the end-of-life.

There's a myth that many people repeat: it's taboo to discuss death. The exact opposite is true--we humans discuss death and dying all the time. What we don't always discuss is our own personal death.

By encouraging Future Cemetery users to contemplate their own, inevitable deaths, it became apparent that making death visible also meant finding a certain kind of liberation - amongst Arnos Vale's gravestones.

The Future Cemetery, is an Arts and Humanities Research Council REACT Heritage Sandbox collaboration between Arnos Vale Cemetery, Calling the Shots media, and the Centre for Death and Society. The Future Cemetery can be followed on Twitter at @FutureCemetery, on Facebook at and via a project blog:


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