Ontology of Death & Remembrance Practices in the United States

This version: https://sites.google.com/view/death-ontology/

Latest version: https://sites.google.com/view/death-ontology/

Last Update: 0.1 13 June 2018

Authors: Jennifer Scott, MSLIS, Drexel University

Contributors: Dr. Jane Greenberg, A. B. Kroeger Professor Director, Metadata Research Center, Drexel University


This ontology defines a set of classes and properties that may structure information about options for the disposition of human remains as well as for remembrance options which directly involve or require human remains.

Status of this Document

The first draft of this document was completed 13 June 2018.

Upon receiving final instructor feedback, the site will be made public and available for perusal or use by any interested parties in accordance with existing usage rights (see footer).

This ontology is a work in progress. Comments, feedback, and other contact is encouraged. Please submit any feedback via the Google Form at the end of this webpage and feel free to reach out.

1. Introduction

The funeral industry as it has existed in the United States over the past several decades is somewhat notorious for its obscurity; much of the practices and pricing is kept under wraps and can be difficult to navigate by unpracticed users, of which there are many. Coupled with general confusion over many of the laws governing the care and preparation of deceased individuals, by consumers and occasionally medical professionals alike, the end result is many grieving family members feeling compelled to purchase unnecessarily costly funeral packages, most requiring embalming and expensive hermetically sealed caskets, that may not be in line with the family or the deceased's wishes or values.

However, over the past few years, the funeral industry in the United States has begun to undergo something akin to a rebirth. The rise of a new wave of grassroots funeral homes, a renewed interest in more economical and eco-friendly burial options, and a general move towards more transparency and death positivity among the general populace have had a remarkable change on the landscape of burial and disposition options for human remains in the United States and beyond. There is an increased interest by consumers wishing to take a more active role in the funeral planning process in order to personalize not only the services, but the method of disposition and the types of remembrance practices to appropriately celebrate the life of their departed loved one.

With a wider range of options available for both the disposition of human remains as well as for meaningful remembrance practices and mementos of and related to human remains or "cremains", there is need for a framework which categorizes these different options in relation to one another in order to make navigating these options an easier and more intuitive process for both death pre-planners and grieving relatives alike.

2. About this Project

This project was devised and created by Jennifer Scott as part of an independent study course on Ontology & the Semantic Web as part of the Masters of Library & Information Science graduate program at Drexel University in spring 2018. The faculty advisor for this project was Dr. Jane Greenberg, the A.B. Kroeger Professor Director at the Metadata Research Center at Drexel University.

3. Audience & Scope

This ontology was primarily designed with two primary audiences in mind:

  • Pre-need audience: individuals or groups of individuals who are working to create a death plan for themselves in accordance with their wishes or values that can be carried out upon their demise;
  • At-need audience: individuals or groups of individuals who have been tasked with making appropriate disposition arrangements for a recently deceased family member or friend.

[add additional info about third audience--interested people]

The scope of this ontology currently covers the following facets:

  • the options available for the disposition of a deceased human body in the US;
  • remembrance practices that directly require the use or presence of a deceased human body (i.e. death masks, tattoo preservation, etc.)

Though often used interchangeably, a funeral is not the same thing as a burial or cremation. For the purposes of this ontology, we will be decoupling funereal rites and practices such as wakes, religious services, and other types of events or gatherings from the physical practice of preparing human remains for interment or cremation.

Though this ontology does not presently include funeral practices or secondary commemorative practices such as memorial plaques, endowed scholarships, etc., this project is an ongoing one, and the scope may expand to include some or all of these elements in future versions.

4. Case Statement

The purpose of this ontology is to provide a useful framework for pre-need and at-need audiences to navigate the disposition and remembrance practice options available to them following the death of themselves or a loved one.

5. Procedure

The idea for this ontology arose as a result of preliminary research of existing ontological frameworks for an independent study course as well as from organizations such as The Order of the Good Death and other organizations dedicated to the promotion of death positivity in mainstream US society.

Existing ontological frameworks covering human remains and funeral practices are relatively limited. The E-Business + Web Science Research Group Product Types Ontology contains an entry for "Funeral home" but not much beyond that. Neither the GoodRelations e-commerce standard nor schema.org went into the desired level of specificity.

The resource I could find that was closest in scope was the Graves Ontology Specification, created by Robert Warren for the Muninn Project as a framework for marking up information on grave sites for anthropological researchers. This was a fabulous resource and is credited with both being an incredibly useful tool and for confirming the potential utility of this ontological project.

From there, I began research into the options available to consumers in the United States for disposition of human remains as well as for remembrance practices and keepsakes as well as the preferred and alternate nomenclature associated with the terms. I relied primarily on industry standard websites as well as highly rated sources of information on the subject to generate a preliminary list of classes and alternate nomenclature.

In many cases, it was necessary to disambiguate the form and function of some of the options in order to more appropriately categorize them in the initial taxonomy. This helped to better define the types of relationships and properties that could exist between the different classes.

One challenge was figuring out whether the practice of embalming worked better as a class or as a property, being that it is a process that is occasionally performed on a body prior to disposition but is not an end in and of itself in the disposition process.

Another challenge was figuring out where to draw the line in terms of scope. The goal of most ontologies is to fully cover and categorize a single area, so appropriately defining and limiting the scope was of utmost importance. This was a primary reason for limiting the scope only to disposition rather than extending to funeral rites and services--the options for funerals and funeral services are numerous and can vary wildly from region to region or according to different cultural backgrounds.

6. Taxonomy of Terms

Disposition Options

    • Burial
      • In-ground burial
        • Cemetery
        • Woodland burial
        • Remembrance park
        • Home burial
      • Above ground burial
        • Mausoleum
          • Community mausoleum
          • Private mausoleum
        • Lawn crypt
      • Burial at sea
    • Cremation
      • Memorial keepsakes
        • Memorial receptacles
          • Urns
          • Vials
        • Artificial diamonds
        • Vinyl records
      • Scatter ashes
      • Space burial
      • Tree burial
      • Artificial reef
      • Fireworks
    • Resomation [UF: Alkaline hydrolysis; Water cremation; Biocremation; Flameless cremation]
    • Donation
      • Education
      • Research
      • Organ donation
    • Plastination
    • Mummification
    • Cryogenics [UF Freeze-drying; Cryonics]

Remembrance Keepsakes

    • Art
      • Cremains
        • Sculpture
        • Pottery
          • Pottery - glazed
          • Pottery - unglazed
        • Glass art
        • Jewelry [cremains] [see Jewelry]
    • Jewelry
      • Fingerprint jewelry
      • Signature jewelry
      • Hair jewelry
      • Cremains jewelry
    • Tattoos
      • Tattoo preservation
      • Memorial tattoo
      • Signature tattoo
      • Audio tattoo
      • Cremains tattoo
    • Likenesses
      • Photographs
      • Death masks
      • Portraits

7. Ontology

View the interactive ontology in greater detail.

8. Conclusion & Next Steps

Possible next steps for this ontology would include expanding existing categories, creating additional relevant properties or relationships, and, as previously stated, expanding the scope of the ontology to include funeral rites and services, estate planning ideas and alternatives, and other secondary and tertiary options for remembrance keepsakes and practices.

Ideally, this ontology will continue to grow in accuracy and completeness over time so that this framework can serve as a robust basis for useful tools and resources for those who are beginning the process of planning for their own funeral and disposition as well as grieving relatives who have been tasked with the bittersweet role of planning and carrying out a funeral that pays appropriate homage to a loved one.

The main takeaways for potential users is this: check out the funeral and disposition options that are available near you, learn what's legal in your area in terms of both disposition options and home care of deceased individuals, and develop a death plan that's right for you to share with your family. A proactive death plan that matches your wishes and personal values can be a joyous process (no, really!) and help bring you closer to your family and to yourself.

9. References & Resources

The ontology was created using the Protege program. It has been exported for display using WebVOWL.

The layout and structure of this document is OWL standard, but was also heavily inspired by the Graves Ontology Specification, an ontology created as part of the Muninn Project to help archaeologists and researchers document and markup information on grave sites and monuments.

Warren, R. (2012, October 31). Graves Ontology Specification 1.0. Retrieved from http://rdf.muninn-project.org/ontologies/graves.html

Additional References

Colby, C. (2018, February 20). Want to Plan for Your Death and Funeral? Here’s How. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/20/smarter-living/death-funeral-planning.html

Potts, L. (2017, November 13). 8 Tips For Funeral Planning. AARP. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2017/funeral-planning-tips-fd.html

Raymond, C. (2018, February 12). How to plan a funeral or memorial service [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/how-to-plan-a-funeral-or-memorial-service-3897584

Vatomsky, S. (2018, March 22) Thinking About Having a ‘Green’ Funeral? Here’s What to Know. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/22/smarter-living/green-funeral-burial-environment.html

Additional Resources

Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a US government agency dedicated to the protection of US consumers. Their series on Shopping for Funeral Services covers a range of topics such as choosing a funeral site, funeral planning, and funeral costs and pricing.

Funeral Consumers Alliance: The Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) is the only NGO consumer organization in the US that "monitors the funeral industry, keeping a close eye on industry trends and advocating for fair practices on the behalf of consumers."

Funeral Ethics Organization: The Funeral Ethics Organization (FEO) is dedicated to the promotion of ethics in "death-related transactions by working for better understanding of ethical issues among funeral, cemetery, memorial industry practitioners, law enforcement, organ procurement organizations, and state agencies, as well as better understanding between these and the general public."

Green Burial Council: The mission of the Green Burial Council is "to inspire and advocate for environmentally sustainable, natural death care through education and certification."

National Funeral Directors Association: "NFDA is the world's leading and largest funeral service association, serving more than 20,000 individual members who represent nearly 11,000 funeral homes in the United States and 49 countries around the world. NFDA is the trusted leader, beacon for ethics and the strongest advocate for the profession. " Their Consumer Resources area features a wide range of useful information and resources for funeral planners.

The Order of the Good Death: "The Order of the Good Death is a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality."

Undertaking LA: A funeral home in Los Angeles specializing in natural burial, Undertaking LA is "committed to being an expert resource to our community" and offers funeral planning checklists and other resources to users across the nation.

10. Feedback & User-Submitted Content