Is Elvis dead? Is President Kennedy? What about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King? Or Bruce Lee? Corporeally speaking, yes, they have all been returned to the Earth from whence they came. But their images remain stored away in Hollywood and newsreel film vaults, and now, on digital media.

And it is this combination of celluloid images coupled with the latest Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) technology that has made actors and other celebrities ‘digitally immortal’. Aside from the sentimental value of seeing 21st Century entertainment releases featuring our favorite—yet decades’ deceased—actors and actresses, the reanimation business is reaping a windfall for producers and advertisers and creating a ‘lively’ practice area for lawyers.

The Impulse for Immortality

The concept of Resurrection of the Dead is found in many religions and would appear to provide an assurance—or at least a hope and a prayer—that our allotted years in this lifetime by no means makes up our entire existence. Whether continuing in an Afterlife or being resurrected to resume living in this world, the need to somehow achieve immortality ‘after death’ is a desire, and perhaps obsession, of humankind. Although the term ‘immortality’ has been applied to leaders, discoverers, and inventors based on the ideas, works, and inventions left behind by those deceased, the ability to connect far more intimately with the deceased—and to even engage in a communication exchange with them—is the focus of emerging CGI technology.

Was It Ever Real?

When you think about it, almost all of our entertainment experiences throughout life have been ‘fake’ unless you happened to have attended a live theater performance or a live concert where living, breathing performers performed. If not, all you saw then, and will see now, are images quickly blinking on a screen (big screen, TV, or personal gadget) accompanied by pre-recorded sound. And, even if you view real-time digital podcasts or ‘live’ concerts, the medium of communication is still electronic only.

However, by employing CGI, the performer who is no longer alive to be filmed on set can still ‘appear’ by having his or her image reanimated so as to present not just the movement and the voice of the performer but interaction with any context the producer and animator desire. It is this technology that allowed us to see the late Bruce Lee ‘appearing’ in an ad for Johnnie Walker Blue whiskey—looking very much alive.

From Imagery to Intellect

Yet, CGI offers the prospect of a leap forward from one-way communication coming from the digital undead to an actual two-way social intercourse with them. Using AI technology, it is not just the appearance, movement, and voice of the deceased that we can engage with; rather, an intelligent, interactive experience can be achieved. AI technology now goes well beyond the audio-visual to the intellectual and emotional.

In various museums worldwide, visitors can not only view a well-animated, quite life-like hologram of a deceased historical figure but also ask 21st Century questions and receive the person’s instantaneous answer based on what the huge assemblage of accumulated data on the person says their thoughts would be on the subject. One such well-known and highly perfected example of this is at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, where children can query a now-deceased Holocaust survivor on such curiosities as to ‘why didn’t your sisters run away with you?’ which elicits the response ‘it was an impossibility…there was no way they could have run.’

Digital Necromancy

Beyond entertainment or enhancing the educational experience, there is another market for CGI that has met with some criticism, and that is the notion of ‘digital necromancy’, or communicating with the dead. Forget the image of a 42nd Street psychic medium conjuring up old dead husband Homer in a darkened room via a few knocks on the table accompanied by a cool gust blowing a lace curtain. The idea here, as with the museum holograms, is that the dead of one’s family can not only appear but also hold a real conversation. To do so, the files comprising the digital undead had to have been carefully crafted from volumes of social media and other sources used to complete the—everlasting—psychological and emotional composition of the deceased person.

But critics charge that this raises moral issues. No matter how good the reanimation, ultimately, the digitizers are altering the real persona of the person. The hologram cum database will remain just that—the audio and visual digital record of the person newly processed through AI—but never the person himself or herself. And the effect of all of this on surviving family members? The debate is ongoing, but some counselors in the field of mourning and grief point to the lack of closure and the resistance to moving on from the loss that can result from staying so intimately connected with such digital-human interfacing.

‘Deleb’ Dilemma

Dr. Denver D’Rozario has authored various academic papers on the topic of the posthumous celebrity of now-deceased celebrities whom he refers to as ‘Delebs’. In his writings, he explores the issue of whether special effects studios and others are attempting to ‘play God’ with their digital resurrections, and he questions the ethical and moral implications of the celebrity reanimation industry, which has now generated in excess of $1 billion from celebrity CGI earnings.

Other Ethical and Legal Concerns

Cited as one example of irresponsible CGI exploitation of the deceased is the Bruce Lee—Johnnie Walker reanimation ad. If, as variously reported, Bruce Lee didn’t approve of alcohol consumption while alive, then the mere association of him with the promotion of a brand of whiskey seems unethical at best. Honoring the memory of a hero is one thing, but cheapening and disrespecting the person’s moral compass via unlikely associations after death, is quite another.

Albert Einstein gave clear instructions that not only his writings but all images of him be owned by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which strictly enforces its copyright, and licenses everything from his name to the iconic image of the physics professor sticking his tongue out. More recently, the late actor Robin Williams directed that neither his image nor any likeness of him (including as a digital Mrs. Doubtfire or as a hologram comedy performance) is used until 25 years after his death. Conversely, many celebrities are bequeathing their digital and social media selves for posthumous CGI exploitation so that their estates may continue to reap revenues from such digital immortality.

But what happens to a person’s social media accounts and other digital manifestations after death is not just a question for celebrities. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms now have policies by which the user can leave instructions as to their social media account after death or which allow family members of a deceased user to control the account, possibly turning it into a memorial for the deceased.

Perhaps rather than worrying about how we will achieve immortality via bits and bytes of data projecting our look, sound, and even thoughts after death, it would be better that we focus on achieving immortality via the good deeds that we accomplish during our lifetimes, and the achievements we leave behind to make the world a better place.

Executive Summary

The Issue

What are the moral, ethical, legal, and psychological ramifications of utilizing CGI technology to achieve immortality through digital reanimation?

The Gravamen

CGI-AI technology now allows our audio, visual, and social media records to be manipulated into an animated composite which can then be presented as a posthumous continuation of ourselves, but the digital reanimation will never be the same as the true persona of the deceased person.

The Path Forward

Since digital reanimation addresses some individuals’ emotional needs and offers staggering commercial opportunities, a framework must be found that holds regard for maintaining the honor of the deceased over a cheapening of their lives.


1. Posthumous Considerations:

Consider what makes up your digital self and how you wish to have that accumulation—and the accounts they reside on—handled after your death.

2. Impact on Survivors:

Think not just of your own need for ‘immortality’ but also of the impact will be on your loved ones if an AI-rendered version of yourself becomes your legacy.

3. Consultation:

Discuss reanimation with a psychologist specializing in grief counseling and/or with a theologian before making the decision to have an AI-rendering of yourself conjured up at will by family members.

4. Estate Planning:

Whether your decision is to absolutely forbid reanimation of yourself after death or to allow it in any form, or even commercialization of your digital self, your estate planning should include a reference to what your intentions are.

Further Reading:


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