Death in the Digital Age

Latest update June 8, 2019 Started on April 1, 2018
urban

Cemeteries are public libraries of stories. But they aren’t sustainable spaces--ecologically or culturally. Our world is increasingly urban, urban land is limited, and we can document and preserve everything digitally. This Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship uses audio and multimedia platforms to explore the changing role of cemeteries worldwide--starting with the UK and Singapore.


How and where do we remember in a land-starved, digitally-documented era? What is “permanence” in our rapidly urbanizing world? And what happens if our documentation technologies prove to have short shelf-lives?

April 1, 2018
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In The Field

Two National Geographic features for DitDA!


It was a true honor to be featured in May's National Geographic Magazine! I am also grateful to National Geographic UK, who wrote this article about my work. They also published a series of photos I took in the field, a visual essay in which I introduce you to some of undertakers, gravediggers, historians, artists, technologists, and more who are changing the ways and places Englanders remember their loved ones and their communities. See those photos and descriptions in the article's gallery.

Katie Thornton is a cemetery historian and storyteller currently studying Death in the Digital Age through a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. You can visit the Death in the Digital Age project page to learn more, sign up for occasional email updates, and follow the work on Instagram.

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DitDA on the BBC: The Environmental Toll of Our Digital Afterlives


Where do we remember the dead? Land is limited in our urbanized world. Large graves with costly tombstones appear ecologically unsustainable. Meanwhile, digital memorials such as enshrined social media profiles of those we’ve lost increasingly become increasingly important—but intangible—points of contact to the deceased. But how much more ecologically sustainable are our digital memorials than our graveyards?

In this BBC podcast, I talk about the emotional and the environmental impacts of both physical and virtual remains—and ask how cemeteries can inform our practices of grieving and documenting online.

Hear the story on BBC Sounds.

Katie Thornton is a cemetery historian and storyteller currently studying Death in the Digital Age through a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. You can visit the Death in the Digital Age project page to learn more, sign up for occasional email updates, and follow the work on Instagram.

All Death in the Digital Age text, images, and audio by Katie Thornton, 2019. No reuse without permission.

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Would You Bury Ashes at a Soccer Stadium?


Many English football clubs have had to ask fans to stop scattering ashes on their pitches. But one football club took a different approach—allowing lifelong fans to become eternal fans.

Hear my story on National Public Radio's program "Only a Game," or read and hear more on the Death in the Digital Age project website.

Katie Thornton is a cemetery historian and storyteller currently studying Death in the Digital Age through a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. You can visit the Death in the Digital Age project page to learn more, sign up for occasional email updates, and follow the work on Instagram.

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Sound Memories: Wayne


Wayne gave up a comfortable office job to dig graves. In a suburban London cemetery, I spoke with Wayne about why he stays in a job that some people may consider grim.

Listen to Wayne's story on the Death in the Digital Age project website.

Katie Thornton is a cemetery historian and storyteller currently studying Death in the Digital Age through a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. You can visit the Death in the Digital Age project page to learn more, sign up for occasional email updates, and follow the work on Instagram.

All Death in the Digital Age text, images, and audio by Katie Thornton, 2019. No reuse without permission.

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Can Cemeteries Be a Tool for Equity?


The UK is running out of space to bury the dead. But why does this matter? Advocating for cemeteries isn’t just the domain of historians and genealogists. As a country with increasing religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity, cemetery planning has also become the domain of a select few community organizers with an eye toward inclusion.Cemetery manager Ariaf Hussain and urban planner Katie McClymont explain why we need to adapt our cemeteries if we hope to make our countries more inclusive and equitable. Read the full blog post and hear the companion audio piece on the Death in the Digital Age project website.

Katie Thornton is a cemetery historian and storyteller currently studying Death in the Digital Age through a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. You can visit the Death in the Digital Age project page to learn more, sign up for occasional email updates, and follow the work on Instagram.

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WWI Reflections: War Memorials, Cemeteries, and Digital Archives


Yesterday I spent the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I not at a ceremony at one of York’s grand war memorials, but in the city’s public graveyard. As my mobile phone approached the 11th Hour, I prepared to hold a moment of silence. Alone, I crouched under my umbrella at the grave of Mary Elizabeth Wortley, Elizabeth West, Mary Carter, and Lillian Eva Ellis. These four women, aged 19 to 53, died in a factory explosion while working the night shift at a north England munitions plant, producing arms for World War I. At 11:01, my silence was broken by the tolling of a bell in the city center. But there was not much noise to resume; I was the only person in sight. As I sat beside the mortal remains of these women, I reflected on how the havoc of war permeates every environment—from the battlefield to the home, the city to the countryside.

How can we use public memorials, cemetery records, and digital archives to gain a more complex understanding of “the war to end all wars?” Read the full blog post on the Death in the Digital Age project website.

Katie Thornton is a cemetery historian and storyteller currently studying Death in the Digital Age through a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. You can visit the Death in the Digital Age project page to learn more, sign up for occasional email updates, and follow the work on Instagram.

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Sound Memories: Día de Muertos


On a chilly October day, Fabiola, Carmen, Danielle, Efrain, and Louise met up in the basement crypt of a Southwest England cemetery. Here, over warm coffees and homemade muffins, this group of friends prepared for a public Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration by building a Mexican Ofrenda—a traditional altar to the dead.

Listen to their stories on the Death in the Digital Age project website to hear how a shared experience of loss brought these friends together across cultures and national origins.

Katie Thornton is a cemetery historian and storyteller currently studying Death in the Digital Age through a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. You can visit the Death in the Digital Age project page to learn more, sign up for occasional email updates, and follow the work on Instagram.

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Sound Memories: Steve


Steve is an informal caretaker—and the only volunteer—at the crumbling St. Mary Redcliff Cemetery in the Southwest England city of Bristol.

Steve, a 69 year old bachelor who grew up in the foster system, spends most of his time and savings restoring old graves. But despite his love for memorial monuments, he is not likely to have one of his own.

Hear Steve's story on the Death in the Digital Age project website to find out why.

Katie Thornton is a cemetery historian and storyteller currently studying Death in the Digital Age through a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. Visit the Death in the Digital Age project page to learn more, and sign up for occasional email updates.

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Graves and Greenery: London's Highgate Cemetery


England is running out of space to bury the dead. A 2013 study showed that half of the country’s burial spaces will likely be full by 2033. In London, four of the city’s 12 inner-city boroughs have no remaining burial plots.

But running out of space for the dead is not a new problem. Nearly 200 years ago, in the 1830s, the issue of overcrowded urban burial grounds was such a dire public health crisis that Parliament had to step in. Migration to cities triggered by the Industrial Revolution and advances in medical technology meant the population of London skyrocketed in the first half of the 19th Century—from just over 1 million in 1801 to nearly 2.3 million in 1851. Booming, too, was the quieter population of permanent residents of local churchyard cemeteries—where most English burials had previously taken place.

These residents were quieter, perhaps, but were of grave concern to local residents and authorities: coffins were crammed in unsightly places; hastily buried bodies were snatched or exposed by the elements.

View this post on the Death in the Digital Age project page to read the rest of the story and to see photos from my visit.

Katie Thornton is a cemetery historian and storyteller currently studying Death in the Digital Age through a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. Visit the Death in the Digital Age project page to learn more, and sign up for occasional email updates.

All Death in the Digital Age text, images, and audio by Katie Thornton, 2018. No reuse without permission.

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Expedition Background

My name is Katie Thornton, and I am a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, cemetery researcher, and radio journalist. On this Fulbright - National Geographic expedition, I’ll be in the UK and Singapore producing “Death in the Digital Age,” a podcast and multimedia project about the changing role of cemeteries in our land-starved, digitally-documented era. This project interviews cemetery staff, urban planners, historians, engineers, and families and the dead and dying to see how and where we remember.


Cemeteries are public libraries of stories. But they aren’t sustainable—ecologically or culturally. Our world is increasingly urban, urban land is limited, and we can document and preserve everything digitally. But a lot is at stake right now. Without planning, the stories buried at cemeteries could be lost forever. Stones crumble or get removed for urban development. And, those documentation technologies could prove to have very short shelf lives.

Or, with creativity, stories of the past and present could be preserved in more engaging, accessible ways.

This expedition takes place in the UK and Singapore. Both are multicultural, island nations where land limitations and changing demographics have already led to significant changes in memorial landscapes. Follow the expedition for stories at the intersection of memory, land use, and technology.

All Death in the Digital Age text, images, and audio on this Open Explorer account by Katie Thornton, 2018-2019. No reuse without permission.

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Can't wait to learn more about your work!

This is going to be a very interesting endeavor. I hadn't thought about cemeteries much till my grandfather passed away this June. One of the things he had specified about his burial was that he did not want a headstone on his grave. Instead, he urged us to plant trees and flowers. A continuation of life

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