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  • Writer's pictureCavendish Chronicle

From absence to virtual presence: Covid-19 and the imagination of death

By Shikha Dwivedi and Frida Bergman

Not only did the pandemic cause a loss of lives worldwide, it also took away our conventional means of honoring our deceased and paying our final respects. As funerals moved into the realm of the digital via Zoom and WhatsApp, the repercussions of our brutal confrontations with death forced us to reimagine our relationship with our own mortality and ultimately life itself.


Sometimes, whilst lost in reverie, I aimlessly open my phone’s photo gallery. I scroll through a collection of colourful mundanities, representing my various foibles. There are photographs of friends and family I spent time with, of places I visited and the food I ate, of lecture notes and library books, of brewing coffee, setting suns, wildflowers, and things that I consider ‘aesthetic’ — things which constitute me and my life. Looking at them gives me solace and comfort. I keep scrolling, but then I suddenly freeze. On my screen are photos of my dead grandpa who succumbed to the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Captured to console the family members who couldn’t be with him at his funeral due to pandemic restrictions, this set of images are his last photographs, symbolising an end. They agitate and unsettle me every time I look at them. Perhaps because having an image of a dead loved one in my photo gallery is incongruent with my conception of what photographs are supposed to be — something that records things or moments I like(d) or need. Or perhaps because those photographs glaringly remind me of death when all I want to do is to look at images of chubby cats, before keeping my phone under my pillow and falling asleep.

That existential questions produce anxiety is not news; if we start to think about matters of death, overhanging risks, or catastrophic events we quickly realise how small and out of control we are. To nonetheless find trust in the continuance and order of everyday life is what sociologist Anthony Giddens refers to as ‘ontological security’ in his 1991 book, Modernity and Self-Identity. It is to possess at the unconscious level as well as from tacit knowledge, ‘answers’ to fundamental existential questions. This allows a ‘bracketing’ of one’s existence within the chaos of uncertainty, which ‘filters out’ dangers that in principle threaten the integrity of the self. Simplified — to have meaning in life. Keeping one’s biographical narrative going in a shared, unproven and unprovable framework of reality continuously, though paradoxically, proves one’s being and thus prevents existential anxiety. Encounters with death however, can introduce an element of ontological insecurity as one is reminded of existential matters. If the shared framework of reality cannot account for the death — or the possibility of death — it can lead to a questioning of that very framework. The bracketing of one’s existence is suspended. Existential anxiety enters in full force.

Transcending national and international borders, the presence of death has become pervasive during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only have more than 6 million people lost their lives to the virus globally, as I write, but in many countries, the government’s mismanagement has made the spectre of death strikingly visible to those left behind. As the second wave of the virus hit India in April 2021, crematoriums in northern parts of the country got so overwhelmed that hundreds of dead bodies were found floating in the Ganges. In São Paulo, cemeteries were exhumed to make space for the soaring number of Covid deaths. And in the UK, Boris Johnson allegedly remarked “Let the bodies pile high” in response to the statistics showing Britain having the highest number of Covid deaths in Europe. These incidents have brought death close to home. The pandemic has posed a threat to people’s health, lives, futures, as well as to ways of being in general, accentuating the sense of unpredictability and the fragility of life. A psychological study published in 2021, conducted by Fiona Rupprecht et al., revealed that while the future time perspectives of people have decreased, their death anxiety has increased manifold in the past two years. The illusion that one can have some control over one’s life and future has diminished. Threat to the physical body has started posing a threat to our very conception of the world.

Isn’t death a natural consequence of life? Then why is the realisation of one’s own and others’ mortality so unnerving? Phillipe Ariès argues in his 1982 book, The Hour of Our Death, that Western modernity sees death as a taboo, always keeping it under the rug. To be human means to keep the knowledge of death away for as long as possible. Although each culture has its own way of conceptualising death and myriads of traditions surrounding it continue to exist, the influence of Western modernity on these remains significant, creating a distinction between the pre-modern and the modern. Dominant modern ideologies like capitalism and socialism do not provide a guide to the afterlife like many pre-modern ideologies did. The focus is invariably on life — on the here and now. As Giddens points out, modernity is obsessed with the construction and expression of the self rather than with questions of existence and death. Most contemporary religions have historically provided an ontological framework for matters of life and death. Now, they focus more on what they can do for people in their lives than in their afterlives. The Scientific Revolution changed our perception of death from a divine decree to a technical problem. Medical science made tremendous progress, increasing the average global life expectancy from 40 to 72 years in the last two centuries. A heart which had stopped beating could now be resuscitated, opening doors to immense possibilities. Humans no longer meekly submitted to death as they had done in the bygone days of the past. Sociologist Philip Mellor argues in a 1993 research article that what had hitherto been an intimate family and community experience, now became a medical event, sequestered from the public gaze into the confines of hospitals. The seclusion of death from public space into the confined sphere of the hospital gave modern humans the illusion of control. Perhaps that is why its reappearance in personal spaces through increased media portrayal and direct encounters brings out a measure of ‘ontological insecurity’ it disrupts our understanding of how things should be.

What was already difficult has come forward with even more cruelty during the pandemic, overturning the way people reached the end of their lives. Owing to the insidious nature of the virus, the care of dying patients has been distorted. Public health restrictions have forced patients to die alone. Their only human contact is with the health care workers, who are shielded by layers of masks, gloves and fear, as if the dying patients not only have a contagion but are in fact contagions themselves. Ramtin Arablouei, an NPR radio host who lost his aged uncle to coronavirus in Tehran, recalls in a 2020 article for The Atlantic the experience: “The day my uncle passed away, his son — my cousin — rushed to the hospital. He had to look at his father’s lifeless body through a window, and watch them cart him away like a stranger.” While many are dying apart from their loved ones, others are grieving apart. Families have not only been denied visitations and final goodbyes but also community rituals of mourning. In many cultures, death rituals and grief used to be a collective experience, until the pandemic hit. With no opportunity to confront the reality of the death and to honour the life of the deceased, the grieving process has become convoluted for those left behind. Rituals associated with death around the world are social processes and tend to take care of the bereaved. The presence of community acts powerfully in the meaning-making process of death for the bereaved family. “The person they’re mourning may be gone, but they see that others are still here,” George Bonanno, a clinical-psychology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College said in a 2020 interview with The Atlantic. With Covid restrictions in place, they have been seeing no one.

Or they have been. But behind a virtual screen with their faces partitioned into neat squares next to each. If nothing else, Zoom meetings create a virtual sense of proximity in grief. Among the myriads of “Zoom this and that,” Zoom funerals have gained immense traction in the pandemic years, transforming not only how we had hitherto understood life but also death. Last goodbyes are being said on iPads and funerals are taking place on WhatsApp video calls. For many mourning the death of a loved one, it has provided a sense of community and a space for collective grieving. In lieu of actual funerals, through video at least grief can be witnessed and thus shared, allowing some proxy for the normal rituals of death. Inevitably however, there are socio-cultural expectations for how death should be managed. Perhaps the inability to symbolically mark the demise of a loved one through well-known rituals creates a void difficult to fill.

Although virtual grievings remain unsatisfactory to many, most have accepted it as the best possible option in these unusual times. Apart from helping mourners comprehend their loss, the digital tools and platforms are also creating memorabilia of the dead. What happens to those photos and videos stored in one’s phones and laptops? Do the dead live amidst a jumble of ludicrous “Good morning” images? Is it reducing the dignity of the dead? Do the dead go away along with the discarded iPad? Or become a byte in the hard-disk? This is not a novel concern. The camera has had a long relationship with death. To capture the transience of life for eternity, the Victorians, for instance, proudly displayed the daguerreotypes of their dead loved ones in their homes. Grieving relatives often posed with the deceased who was dressed up to look more “alive” before the photo session. Although appearing macabre to modern sensibilities, these images not only acted as what historian Pierre Nora in a 1989 article calls lieux de mémoire — sites of memory, but also as symbols of mourning. They elicited self-reflection on human mortality, keeping alive the illusion of life and the reality of death.

As death permeates our contemporary virtual and real worlds, it has created newer meanings for many people. In many parts of the world, Death Cafes, where people gather to discuss their mortality, have started becoming popular during the pandemic. In one such discussion group in the US, virtual funeral ceremonies are held in which people cover themselves in shrouds and imagine their own death, Lauren Vespoli reports in a 2020 piece for Insider. They virtually say final goodbyes to their loved ones and see their photos disappearing behind the mist. For Lauren, who attended it once, it was a space to reflect upon life. "When the pandemic started, I started thinking about life insurance, and dying, in just a very matter-of-fact way," 36-year old Daniel Bergfalk tells Lauren. Imagining his own funeral, he says, helped him “throw myself into things I enjoy." Discussions about death, facilitated by technology, seem to be helping people re-integrate death into their lives, and perhaps also re-affirm their ontological security. At the end, confrontation with and conversation about death momentarily re-introduces existential anxiety, but also works to re-affirm ontological security as many pre-modern frameworks of reality have been ruptured.

What will happen when the pandemic becomes a memory of the past? Will we embrace the transience of life or become more adamant to defeat death? Only time will tell. I, for one, hope to create a folder in my phone with photographs of my dead loved ones, and to look at them regularly without flinching. Perhaps then, instead of being an inconvenient truth that should remain conveniently hidden away, death would become another memory, another part of life incorporated in a construed, shared reality that relays what it means to be.


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