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The new semiotics of death

We are used to formality, sombreness, burials, says Alex Gordon, but a modern set of signs, symbols and cultural codes are emerging for death in the 21st century that have the potential to change how we think about death.

Death is changing in the UK. The traditional social and cultural rituals and behaviours associated with death and the process of dying are under review to the extent that a new set of signs, symbols and cultural codes are emerging. In short, a new semiotics of death is emerging, one that will change the way we conduct our rituals, the way we behave and ultimately how we think about death in the 21st century.

Lens of semiotics

Before plunging headlong into this topic, a little reminder about semiotics and why it is a useful lens through which to view the end of life. Semiotics is an investigation into how meaning is created and communicated.

Although the word comes from ‘Semeion’, the ancient Greek for ‘sign’, and has come to be associated with visual imagery, commercial semiotics for marketing purposes assists in understanding how to make brands culturally relevant and thereby more meaningful to consumers.

Viewing and interpreting (or decoding) signs enables us to navigate the landscape of our streets and society. Everyone is a semiotician, because everyone is constantly unconsciously interpreting the meaning of signs around them – from traffic lights to balloons on doors, colours of flags, the shapes of cars, the architecture of buildings, the design of cereal packs and, of course, the signs and symbols associated with death.

Indeed, those signs and symbols have become well established in the UK. Today they are the standard way in which the cultural meaning of death, grief and memorialisation is understood.

Traditional codes

The first and most common code is the use of black as a signifier of death and mourning. It is usually seen in the context of formal attire – frock coats, top-hatted undertakers, black ties and suits – and with a sombre state of mind. Such formality is extended into the rituals associated with funerals e.g. carrying the coffin, the formula of the memorial service and funeral with its familiar ‘ashes to ashes’ invocations. In particular, it is presented through a male-led top-down authority structure; whether in the form of the clergyman, the undertaker, or God ‘himself’.

The mourners and organisers, meanwhile, are expected to behave with a ritualised uniformity, which overcomes their natural sense of powerlessness and sadness at the loss of loved-ones.

Such social conformity is critical in the UK as the repetition provides direction and guidance for those unused to the experience of death, allowing for emotional expression not usually permitted outside this context. It also enables those comforting the mourners to follow an established and expected routine in such circumstances, one that clearly signals ‘death’ as manageable, understandable and ritualised. Essentially, this enables us to distance ourselves from the inexplicable existential fear and anxiety that engaging with death privately generates.

Inevitably, given this underlying and often un-discussed essence, there is another set of symbolic codes that define death and grief for us in the UK: this has more to do with the nature of spaces and places associated with it. For instance, cemeteries are both among us but also hidden from us. Frequently within or near the city, they are typically constructed within walls and gates signifying a separation from the life outside. We see death (tombstones) from a distance; we literally shut it out and away, much as we do in conversation in this country, where even the word is typically whispered.

For Michel Foucault, the French social philosopher, cemeteries are an example of what he calls ‘heterotopias’: those spaces outside of normative life which permit unusual or unexpected behaviour and open the possibility for exploring differences. Certainly, in Britain’s tight and stiff upper-lipped culture, the cemetery is a signifier of permitted emotional release; one of the only places where tears and warm, comforting hugs are seen in public.

But this is all accompanied by a range of cultural narratives around death focusing more on its underlying meaning, which generally remain unspoken yet essentially present. Typically death is understood as being beyond us, out there and coded as linear and one-way (we are all moving inexorably towards it), as being temporally remote and beyond our world, and more fundamentally about decay and destruction.

Key visual codes

In the context of funerals and burial, one of the key visual codes of death is ‘down-ness’; a move into, under and below the earth. Although the immortality of the soul remains coded as a move up to heaven, that remains in the realm of religion. But in the material world of the everyday, the absolute certainty of death is frequently the tangible reality of a body moving downwards into the ground.

Many of these images, particularly the use of sombre black formality, top-down ritualised uniformity, and the walled and gated cemetery are a legacy of the Victorian period, and it is this set of symbolic visual codes, listed in a box on page x, that have constructed the dominant meaning of death in the UK.

This well-established set of symbolic codes is being challenged. Just as this Victorian legacy has remained dominant in the UK into the 21st century, so it has taken 40 years since the social liberalisation of the ‘60s to begin to impact conceptions and definitions of death, grief and memorialisation in this country. Yet there are now clear signs that change is in the air, and an entirely new set of visual and language codes are entering popular currency.

Funeral care comms use female imagery as a way of presenting sympathy and care, while death and funerals – in the public consciousness – are presided over by male figures (even the Grim Reaper). But a subtle shift is occurring. Increasingly, undertakers, priests and funeral representatives are female – and are coded publicly as legitimate female roles.

New direction for death

The British Humanist Association, for instance, features female representatives on its website. Indeed, the Individual Funeral Company was founded by Lucy Jane, a fact that might point to a new direction for death in the UK: one that is a matter of choice, not social expectation or a narrow set of codes.

Just as death is inevitable, so until recently has been the format of funerals: a conventional pattern of black, sobriety and sadness. Increasingly, though, the bereaved are being offered different options, typified by drop-down website menus with their familiar list structures. In this way charities and brands like Age UK, Perfect Choice Funeral Plans, and lifebeforedeath.com in the US, are changing the very meaning of death: from a situation of default powerlessness to the consolation of giving a loved one a truly appropriate and bespoke send-off.

Dominant funerals have tended to conform to ritualised tradition, with standardised coffins, clothing and format. This is now being challenged by people’s desire to choose, leading to more individualised ceremonies, coffins, etc., which ‘break the rules’ and change from ceremony to ceremony without compromising the validity or ethical status of the event.

A corollary of this is that the funeral director’s status is shifting from a position of authority and social power – the uniform coding of Victorian social order – to one of listening and learning. It translates from ‘we are the experts’ to ‘you are the expert’, as authority becomes bottom-up and decisions are made by the mourners or the pre-deceased, rather than being deferred to the traditional top-down authorities. The marketing video of the Humanist Funeral Association emphasises the thoughts and feelings of family rather than the organisation’s expertise.

Changing colour

The traditional funeral’s serious and respectful mood is mirrored in a sombre palette and dull stylistic tone. This is gradually giving way to more joyful and lighthearted colours and themes. Eastenders’ depiction of a pink coffin for Heather Trott’s funeral confirmed the growing acceptability of irreverent frivolity.

A logical extension is that, while grief and sadness will always be the predominant emotions at a funeral, people want to colour the occasion with more positive feelings, maybe even to celebrate it actively, seeing this as the most fitting end to a person’s life. Champagne, party food and drinks, smiles and laughter are increasingly normalised codes of funeral events and in Humanist funeral ceremonies the organiser is called the ‘celebrant’, denoting the rise of joy and positivity over trauma and negativity.

We are becoming used to those who are dying speaking of the process – not silently slipping away. The broader contemporary cultural move towards a more transparent and expressive society is signalled by groups raising awareness of death and dying. The drive towards a more open, free and communicative society in Britain is reflected in our attitudes to death, dying and funeral care.

The diseased and dying now have a voice, from sufferers of Alzheimer’s like Terry Pratchett to the terminally ill like Philip Gould and Christopher Hitchens. Groups like Dying Matters aim to raise awareness, even appropriating ancient cultural forms like the Day of the Dead. In the US, ‘Death Cafés’ have begun springing up – laid-back forums for discussing death, emergently coding death as something to be thought-through carefully, not dismissed.

Planning for death

In the West, thinking about death has traditionally been deferred until the last minute as a coping mechanism. Increasingly, though, death is ‘here and now’. People are being invited to say what they would like to say while their loved one is still alive. This more open attitude to death has a twofold consequence: firstly, those thinking of their own death or that of a loved one are more open to planning for it. The reality is brought into the present for pragmatic reasons. Secondly, those who are dying are increasingly celebrating their life now – before they die – through organised events, often with ‘gallows humour’ prominent.

While funerals are by definition about death, paradoxically they are becoming coded by cues of life, growth and renewal rather than sombre tones. Yarden Funeral Direcors in the Netherlands, for instance, offers tree planting. There is also a rise in the use of green and light/white colouring for marketing material, e.g. Icon magazine’s recent creative concept for a new funeral care brand, Neuma.

Historically, death has been seen as the ultimate destructive act – coded as ending and disappearance. Yet as new practices, such as making a diamond from the ashes of a deceased loved one (e.g. Phoenix Diamonds), grow in popularity, along with more artful and expressive funerals, death is being recoded as constructive and creative. As a corollary the focus of funerals, traditionally ‘about’ the deceased, is shifting, refocusing, placing them merely as part of a much bigger picture: of life, the planet or principles of social justice. There is growing debate, for instance, over the ethics of burial vs cremation, use of materials, etc., a debate in which concerns for the deceased vie with those about CO2 emissions and land limitations. In addition, new services like Pink Partings cater for broad social justice concerns like LGBT rights.

Interactive graves

Graves have always been ‘silent’: yielding no information apart from what appears on the gravestone. The rise of ‘Digital Death’, though, means that graves – and those whose bodies are interred – can now ‘speak’ through technology to visitors. QR codes offer an instant amount of pertinent personalised information: his or her life story, cause of death, social or cultural legacy, etc. In the US, video screens on graves, while still relatively niche, are becoming more popular. Funeral care is moving, in line with more general technological and communicative advancements, into the 21st century.

The focus is shifting from a belief in the immortality of the spirit or soul to everlasting virtual existence – the deceased’s personality is ‘saved’ forever online or on file, and can be replicated as a ‘meme’ – not mystical but practical. Public forums for expressions of grief such as dedicated Facebook pages mean the person ‘lives on’ in people’s minds more strongly than ever before.

Our digital existence – divorced from our biological life – is increasingly recognised as an issue vis-à-vis death. A funeral is no longer the only problem to deal with…digital memorialisation is expected. Digital legacy companies like Cirrus and funeral firms like Hyphenalia cater for long-term identity maintenance in the form of stored and organised information.

The ‘final resting place’ of more and more people is ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’. The sharp rise in cremation means it is increasingly normal to spread the body of a loved one rather than locate it in one spot that can be visited. This means a single ‘scared space’ is becoming less crucial in the process of grief and ongoing remembrance. Virtual (or ‘memetic’) immortality also effectively disperses a person who is gone, freeing them from the bounds of the material world and enabling their taking up a place in virtual space – which is everywhere and nowhere.

Above and below

Traditionally funerals have been signified by burial with the body being placed below, under: essentially down. Increasingly funerals and the ‘burial’ process are reflected by codes of up-ness: the movement of the soul/spirit or even body towards the sky or upwards (e.g. to Heaven). An increasing number of services offer ‘space burial’, rocketing ashes away from the earth. Yarden in the Netherlands offers to take the ashes of a loved one up in high altitude balloons.

Historically, death has been coded as the end of life’s straight line, one which you move along (with a beginning, middle and end). Increasingly, though, it’s being presented as just part of the endless cycles of nature, an idea reinforced by the growing Western belief (borrowed from the East) in reincarnation. Thus life/death is being coded by imagery of circles, as signified by new rounded coffin edges.

The debates about assisted suicide and euthanasia, meanwhile, signal a broader shift towards an acceptance of death as a positive solution to be welcomed rather than something to fear or avoid talking about (a given in the emotionally-restrained UK). This gives permission to signal greater optimism about death rather than its traditionally negative cultural and biological inevitability.

As an extension of this phenomenon, despite the decline of religious influence, in the UK we remain strongly committed to repeating ‘performative rituals’. Secular ceremonies tend to mirror those of the established and dominant religious structures (e.g. Sunday morning secular ‘assemblies’ with sermons, contemporary pop anthems as hymns etc), coding ritual as a key way of providing comfort, care and stimulation even in the absence of organised religion.

As we can see, the familiar codes of death, grief and memorialisation are giving way to a whole new set. In the not too distant future the familiar Victorian codes that have come to define death in the UK will fade away, to be replaced by ones that herald a new construction and meaning of death in the 21st century.

Codes that symbolise death

Existing codes
  • Masculine
  • Powerlessness
  • Top-down authority
  • Ritualised uniformity
  • Formal and sombre
  • Mourning
  • Hidden/closed
  • Temporal remoteness
  • Decay
  • Destruction
  • One-way
  • Soul immortality
  • Down
  • Linearity and finality
Emerging codes
  • Feminine
  • Choice
  • Bottom-up responsiveness
  • Diversity and personalisation
  • Informal and fun
  • Celebration
  • Revealed/open
  • Now
  • Growth
  • Construction
  • Two-way and interactive
  • Virtual immortality
  • Up
  • Circularity and incompleteness

 

Alex Gordon
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2014