Should the dead roll over to make room for real estate?

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

As a general rule, one place you really don’t want to find yourself is in-between a Melburnian and a piece of real estate.

But one group of long-term city residents has been getting in the way of developers and planners for a very long time now. This is even more impressive when you consider these residents have been dead for well over a century.

The Queen Victoria Market’s carpark sits atop the city’s original cemetery, founded in the 1830s. Despite exhumations in the 1920s there are still thousands of bodies buried there, some at depth, others barely a foot beneath the surface.

Surveyor Robert Hoddle’s understandable lack of foresight in siting the cemetery so close to the CBD grid that bears his name has meant that the use of this land has long been a sensitive and difficult matter. Works over the years have had to negotiate the competing needs of the market (in more sense than one) and the non-economic needs of human remembrance, trying to combine mercantile and sacred space in a delicate balancing act.

jurek d.

Recently, City of Melbourne has proposed turning most of the existing carpark into a park as a sign of respect for those buried there – a far cry from the attitude of the 1930s, when a steam shovel was used to tear through the old cemetery to build the Franklin Street stores.

And yet questions have still been raised about whether the new plans show sufficient forbearance. The proposed extension of Franklin Street and commercial development at the southern end of the market precinct would potentially sit atop burial sites.

This clash between the call of the future and the depth of the past poses important questions for us here in the present: should the dead impede the activities of the living in this way? What, if anything, do we owe the dead?

It’s too easy to say “nothing”, that the dead simply don’t exist any more and any responsibilities we have regarding the dead are actually duties to the living. Even the unsentimental Aristotle thought it “heartless” to claim the dead couldn’t be harmed by events after their death, such as the fortunes of their descendants.

patrick wilken

There is a real question as to how we can harm or benefit a person who no longer exists, and philosophers have tried to answer this question in a number of ways. An influential answer, first offered by Thomas Nagel, is that just as we can harm someone at a great spatial distance, say by betraying them, we can also harm them at a temporal distance as well.

So when, for instance, Colin Campbell Ross was pardoned for Melbourne’s Gun Alley Murder, 86 years after he was wrongfully convicted and hanged, this was justice for Ross, not for the living.

I’ve argued previously that the dead persist phenomenally in our recollection – not as conscious selves, but nonetheless as the objects of loving attention they were for us while they lived – and that this gives us a responsibility to maintain that memory.

Martijn Witlox

Sartre said the dead are “prey” to the living, but they are also our dependants: without our maintenance they slip away into oblivion, into what Goethe called the “second death” of being forgotten.

Yet those buried beneath the Queen Vic are beyond memory. There are no direct personal bonds between the living and the dead in this case, no personal promises left to honour or break. Whatever connections of blood or allegiance we might have to these people are lost in their anonymity. Each is, for us, simply a distinct token of humanity, and whatever we owe them, we owe them simply as human beings.

Kierkegaard declared that remembering the dead was the purest act of love, because the dead can neither repay us for our trouble nor force us to remember them. This work of love is harder when the dead are beyond human memory, stripped of their identity and decomposed into a body that can only be reconstructed, not recognised, and described only through general categories – age, height, sex.

But the sense remains that even these remains are those of distinctive persons, objects of someone’s loving regard even if they remain unknowable to us.

Known Unto God, Acroma Knightsbridge Cemetery near Tobruk, Libya.

The inscription “Known Unto God” on the gravestones of unknown soldiers picks out something like this: to us these are perhaps just bones, but someone – God, at least, for the epitaph-writers of the Great War – knew this person in their distinctive fullness. They lived. And that they lived deserves to be respected.

The reason we’re horrified by the thought of a steam shovel tearing up the old cemetery is not that we’re superstitious or have taken metaphors about the “resting place” of the dead too literally. It’s that the dead continue to demand a respect that extends to how we treat their remains, however far removed these might be from the full, living person they once were.

The dead, in a way, have a right to be awkward. They should be an obstruction, something the living need to work around, because in doing so we refuse to quarantine them from the realm of what is.

The rights of those buried beneath the market carpark are of course no more absolute than those of any other Melburnians. It would be silly to deny that the living have a far greater claim on us, and the demands of the dead are easily outweighed by other considerations. But that doesn’t mean the dead have no claim on us at all.

The continued sensitive management of this site isn’t simply a piece of good urban planning or canny politics. It’s a work of love.

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

New Project: Online Interactions with the Dead

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve received support from the Deakin University Central Research Grants Scheme to pursue a new project on our online encounters with the dead throughout 2014.

As I’ve written about in both scholarly and popular forums, dead people are becoming an increasingly inescapable part of our experience of social media. This project will consider increasingly common practices of online memorialisation and commemoration, as well as other ways in which the phenomenal and practical presence of the dead is mediated through emerging online technologies. These practices will be considered in the light of a range of questions in contemporary philosophy to do with the extent of personal identity and the existential and moral status of the dead.

The grant includes some support to run an interdisciplinary workshop – more details to follow.

I tweet dead people: can the internet help you cheat your maker?

[Originally published at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Can you believe it’s been a year already? I’m sure we all remember where we were when we heard the terrible news we’d lost Gregg Jevin.

You know, Gregg Jevin? The Gregg Jevin?

Don’t worry if the name doesn’t ring any bells. There never was a Gregg Jevin. Yet he “died” on 24th February last year, in a tweet from British comedian Michael Legge:

Sad to say that Gregg Jevin, a man I just made up, has died. #RIPGreggJevin

— Michael Legge (@michaellegge) February 24, 2012

Within hours, #RIPGreggJevin was trending on Twitter, with celebrities, companies and ordinary punters rushing to express “condolences”. Some of it was genuinely hilarious. Even the odd philosopher had a go at it.

The Jevin affair suggests something genuinely interesting about “Twitter mourning”: we’ve been doing it long enough that it’s developed its own conventions, which users know how to satirise when given the chance. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Legge’s tweet went viral only days after Twitter’s outpouring of grief for Whitney Houston. The “death” of Gregg Jevin briefly gave people a sandbox in which to play around with the language of online mourning without causing genuine offence.

Now, just when we’d somehow managed to pick up the pieces and move on without Gregg, a startup called _LivesOn claims it will change the way Twitter users interact with the dead.

Details are scant, but the idea seems to be that the service will use an algorithm to generate new tweets of behalf of dead users, tweets that sound like those the user themselves posted in life. The net effect is that, as _LivesOn put it, “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.”

It’s hard to know how seriously to take these claims. Representatives of _LivesOn deny being a publicity stunt, describing itself as an project jointly conducted by an ad agency and a university. But even if it’s deadly serious (sorry), commentators have questioned whether the technology could possibly deliver what it promises.

This is not the first time a company has held out the prospect of perpetuating an online presence after your demise. Intellitar’s “Virtual Eternity” service – currently closed, supposedly for further development – offers an animated avatar that can interact with users, using artificial intelligence to “answer” questions as you would have done. The results, frankly, aren’t impressive, at least not yet.

The interesting point is not whether these technologies will ever be any good, but that they’re being discussed at all. What does it say about us that we’re reaching for this kind of digital immortality?

It seems silly to think you could somehow survive your death through a service that tweets on your behalf. But consider how much of our communication with others is now mediated through social media: might there be some sense in the idea that extending your online presence after your death would keep you in existence somehow?

Yes and no. In research published last year, I looked into the increasingly common practice of memorialising the profiles of dead Facebook users. For a large number of us, Facebook has become a large part of our presence in the lives of others. When Facebook users die, their digital traces persist; through them, the dead arguably do retain something of their presence in our lives. Perhaps that’s why people continue to post on the walls of dead Facebook users long after their passing.

So social media can, in one sense, help the dead remain with us. But why isn’t this thought much comfort?

To answer that, I suggest we consider some recent developments in the philosophy of personal identity. Discussions in this field have increasingly begun to differentiate between the “person” and the “self” (or in a slightly different version, the “narrative self” or “autobiographical self” and the “minimal self” or “core self”).

The distinction is applied somewhat differently by different theorists, but it goes roughly like this: the self is the subject you experience yourself as being here and now, the thing that’s thinking your thoughts and having your experiences, while the person is a physical, psychological and social being that is spread out across time.

One of the questions I focus on in my work is how these two kinds of selfhood interact, and the ways in which they can come apart. In this case, something like _LivesOn might in fact extend the identity of your person, albeit in a very thin and diminished sense. If you’re a regular tweeter, it might serve in some small way to enhance your ongoing presence in the life of other people.

But it doesn’t extend your self. There’s no experience to look forward to, no subject at the core of your tweets. Perhaps it helps you live on for others, to some small degree, but not for yourself.

So perhaps we shouldn’t hope for too much from our posthumous online presences. Perhaps we should leave posterity to worry about itself and simply live the best we can here and now.

It’s what Gregg would have wanted.