Researchers of Religion, Digital Media, and Rituals Met in Helsinki

Katriina Hulkkonen, Linda Annunen and Ruth Illman, Åbo Akademi University

An international group of researchers interested in religion, digital media, rituals, and death gathered at the University of Helsinki on 13–15 March 2024. The seminar was jointly organized by the research projects Recovira and Digital Death, DiDe.

The seminar was opened on Wednesday 13 March by a keynote lecture delivered by Professor Douglas Davies of Durham University. His theme was “Death rites online and absent. Death ritual through virtual presence and literal absence: the paradox of live-streaming funerals and the absence of ritual in ‘direct cremation”. Davies’ presentation highlighted a ludic, or playful, attention to death and funerals. Play bends the rules in order to create something new, which becomes apparent especially in two funeral trends: the “no-fuss-funerals”, which are stripped of typical funeral aesthetics and traditions, and funerals carried out as a celebration of life. In this sense, rituals in times of change might bring forth ludicity that in turn allows for changes in funeral rituals.

Prof. Douglas Davies opened the seminar with a keynote lecture on the theme of death rituals in digital age. Prof. Joshua Edelman, PI of the Recovira team, responded with reflections on performativity and play. Image credit – Ruth Illman

The following day was reserved for a roundtable seminar where the researchers of Recovira and DiDe discussed their preliminary results in-depth. In the first roundtable session “Religious communities in digital contexts: Trends and transformations”, Henrik Reintoft Christensen and Alana Vincent talked about the current state of our Recovira project as well as the benefits and challenges of using survey data and social media materials. The presentations sparked discussion on how technology shapes religion and religious communities and how a critical approach could be formed within the Recovira project. In other words, how could our research better consider and critically examine the negative aspects of digitalization and the power structures that relate to it? The participants asked very interesting questions, for example: What is the position of commercial technology companies in the field of religion? What opportunities do religious communities have to respond to or resist increasing digitalization? 

The second roundtable session of the afternoon focused on ritual changes, death, and grief. First, Dorthe Christensen discussed the perspective offered by the autoethnographic method to study digital death practices and grief. Terhi Utriainen then talked about various perspectives for examining death rituals. At the same time, she presented the forthcoming Handbook on Contemporary Death Rituals in Europe. The presentations gave rise to a lively discussion, where for example the definition and use of the concept of ritual was scrutinized. Is there an end to a ritual? Are classics, like the ritual theories of Victor Turner or Catherine Bell, still relevant today? Moreover, what kind of new theoretical tools do we need to study death rituals?

The day continued with an open panel discussion led by Professor Johanna Sumiala, PI of the DiDe team. The speakers were the author, columnist and pastor Hilkka Olkinuora, the funeral home entrepreneur Kyllikki Forsius, the director Hannu Mäkelä from the Digital and Population Data Services Agency, the researcher Maija Butters from the University of Helsinkiand the Vantaa-based Imam Sharmarke Said Aw-Musse.

Death in Finland Today: the public panel discussion at the Think Corner drew a large audience both on-site and online. From left: Johanna Sumiala, Hilkka Olkinuora, Kyllikki Forsius, Hannu Mäkelä, Maija Butters and Sharmarke Said Aw-Musse.

During the conversation, the panelists offered different viewpoints on practices and attitudes toward death. They largely agreed that nowadays, the silent and natural death of an individual is hidden while the violence of death has received a lot of attention in the media, especially due to wars. The discussion highlighted the importance of funeral homes, bureaucracy, and the role of relatives in practical matters related to death. The panelists presented their views on the change in funeral customs in Finland. Based on the discussion, funerals have become more individual. The panelists’ views also resonate with our Finnish Recovira data, according to which in the case of the Lutheran Church, people want to arrange smaller funerals than before. However, the discussion also revealed that funerals are often large in the Muslim community. For example, community members not close to the deceased may also come to pray at the funeral. In addition, the panelists pondered, what kind of a place social media is for dealing with grief, how the fear of death is visible today’s Finland, and whether there should be more education related to death. Based on the discussion, death rituals are still important for communities, relatives and loved ones, as well as for the dying person her- or himself in dealing with death and grief. The panel discussion ended with the wish that people would be present for the dying person and talk more about mortality in general.

On Friday, both projects continued with internal project meetings. For the Recovira-team, this included planning a book that will focus on overlappings and differences expressed in the research data from all project countries. In addition to these more concrete plans for the Recovira project, for us members of the Finnish team, this three-day seminar offered interesting and different topics for reflection concerning, among other things, creativity, critical research on digitalisation and religion, the limits of the use of the concept of ritual, and people’s somewhat changed relationship with death.

Studying religion means working Sundays

Gero Menzel, Research Associate, Goethe University Frankfurt

Going into the first field, the Diocese of Limburg, I came prepared to also work Sundays. After deciding to postpone the second case, Islam, because field access turned out to be more complicated than expected, I moved on with our third case study on Hinduism, not expecting Sunday to become the focal point of my research activity again. But that’s how it was My contact person from our cooperation partner invited me to join her to visit the temple on Sunday.

The first thing I want to reflect on, is that researching religion, at least in many contexts, conflicts with the academic work schedule and with how we organize our ‘work-life-balance’. Sundays in Germany are usually regarded as days of non-work, days of leisure. At the same time, they are workdays for religious workers and it is a day of non-work or a day of informal work for visitors of religious services; the second being the role we tend to get assigned and/or accept as researchers.

The second thing I want to dwell on, is that when and on which days we conduct our research is also important. Our impression of the research field might be influenced drastically by when we visit. To generate a contrasting case for my research in the first case study, the Diocese of Limburg, I visited a week day service. It was a Tuesday service and it fit well into my work schedule. I could go there before heading to the office. The experience was completely different from Sundays; I was the youngest by far. Of course, while my schedule allowed me to go to Church on a Weekday morning, everybody else except retirees was not able to attend. So ethnographic research includes adapting our schedule to our research field or deciding why we deviate from our field’s usual schedule, be it for pragmatic or methodological reasons.

By getting to know the rhythm, the schedule of our field, we also learn something about it (Elliott et al., 2016). Which days are important in living religion and for whom? We have to ask, whose schedule or which sub-schedule are we adapting to? How far can we adapt with our personal life, our employment conditions?

Sunday being the day for communal, for religious gathering is linked to how Christianity shaped the work schedules in Germany and other Christian majority countries and still does, together with labor unions and other forces of civil society. By looking at when religious communities gather, we can learn about how they relate to the majority and other religious communities. In how far Sunday becomes the day for religious activities and gathering, might also show how religious communities might relate to European secularity sedimented in temporal orders. It might also show us how established religious communities are, by how far they are able to follow their own temporal orders.

Studying religion means navigating and reflecting the temporal practices.


Elliott, S., McKelvy, J. N., & Bowen, S. (2016). Marking time in ethnography: Uncovering temporal dispositions. Ethnography, 18(4), 556–576.

Image credit: Image provided by the author

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