I am currently completing my new book, entitled Digital Health: Critical Perspectives (to be published by Routledge early next year). One of the chapters focuses on the ways in which human bodies are portrayed in digital media. I wanted to write some paragraphs about digital representations of dying and dead bodies, but not much previous research that I can find has addressed this issue. There is a growing body of literature on how the dead are memorialised on social media, but very little about actual images of the dying and dead online. This is interesting in itself, given that death is such a taboo and often avoided subject.
Here is some material I have found and included in the chapter.
It is now possible for audiences to find images of death and dying at all phases of human life. The Visible Human Project developed by the US National Library of Medicine is one example of how dead human flesh has been rendered into a digital format and placed on the internet for all to view. The Visual Human Project used computer technologies to represent in fine detail the anatomical structure of male and female cadavers. Each body was cross-sectioned transversely from head to toe and images of the sections of their bodies using magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography and anatomical images were uploaded to a computer website and can also be viewed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC.
Social media platforms host images of dead bodies and first-person accounts of dying. One example that created controversy in the news media was the Instagram account of an American pathologist. She posted hundreds of images of autopsied corpses on her account, claiming it to be a form of public education. Another website, Unidentified Dead Bodies, has been established in India as a public service to assist with the identification of corpses. It features images of the bodies and details about where they were found, asking viewers to contact police or the coroner in charge of the case with any information they may have about the dead people portrayed on the site. A Chicago medical examiner’s office has undertaken a similar exercise, posting photographs of unidentified bodies that have come in for examination on its website. Several other examples of this type of publication of images of corpses can be found online. Indeed, simply typing in ‘unidentified dead bodies’ into a search engine gives ready access to many of these images.
Some people who have confronted a fatal illness have blogged about their experiences, presenting a written portrayal of their last days, sometimes accompanied by images of their failing bodies. There are numerous videos posted on YouTube showing the end of life stages of mortally ill people, death and after-death scenes posted by friends or family members of the dead. Many memorial blogs and YouTube videos feature parents mourning pregnancy loss and stillborn infants, often featuring images of the dead foetuses or infants (I discuss this in my book The Social Worlds of the Unborn).
These are the kind of accounts and images of the dying and dead human body that until the advent of the internet would have received little or no exposure. While bereaved people in the Victorian era often had photographs taken of dead relatives, especially babies and children (sometimes with the living relatives posing alongside them), these images were kept to the private domain. Some may find these images distasteful, ghoulish or confronting. Yet advocates see their publication as a positive move towards better knowledge of death and dying.