We hang on to the dead however we can.
The number of Facebook groups called “In Memoriam” is around 1,800. “R.I.P.”: 82,000. The same search terms applied to Twitter yield an almost infinite array of results. You can spend days on Facebook alone sifting through respectful electronic memory boxes of the deceased – photos, videos, dream journals, discussions. Every stage of grief is represented, from the long and lonely lament over the peaceably gone to the angry hunt for the perpetrators of murder in the case of violence.
Facebook is mostly words, pictures, and video. In the avatar-driven Second Life, you can actually visit virtual places like the Second Afterlife Cemetery and find grave markers in memory of persons who, while digitally memorialized, were very real in their day. You know there’s nothing (or, better, no body) underneath the virtual grave marker because “there’s no there there,” but you feel somehow that you’re treading holy ground – even if, like me, you do some of your best work in real graveyards.
The line between the simulated and the actual/physical has never been fuzzier. It’s no longer a line, in fact, so much as a hazy area of consistent negotiation. So much care is required.
In fact, as a byproduct of broadcasting our lives on social networking sites, it shouldn’t be considered a new trend to see many people turning to digital sites for coping with grief and expressing our mourning. For the last decade, social media sites have quickly turned into virtual memorial sites for people after they die, and with Facebook boosting more than 750 million members to date, anywhere from 1.8 to 3 million Facebook users are estimated to die in 2011 according to digital legacy sites like 1000memories.com and Entrustet.com, turning their profiles into digital epitaphs.
“It would be inappropriate to show up at someone’s door, but the internet provides an alternative way to reach out to people without being in their face,” says Anabel Quan-Haase, Associate Professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario. “When you see a person’s profile still on Facebook it gives them immortality. For a moment in time, their online persona is exactly the way they left it.”
In The New York Times, he writes: Grieving has been largely guided by religious communities. Today, with families dispersed and the pace of life feeling quickened, these elaborate, carefully staged mourning rituals are less and less common. Old customs no longer apply, yet new ones have yet to materialize…
NEARY: But, you know, what’s also very interesting about what you wrote is the way in which, you know, social media, you know, digital culture is changing our mourning rituals. For instance, you write about getting a mass email announcing a death, and that you didn’t really know how to respond to that.
FEILER: Well, what do you do? So you get these mass emails. And one thing – as you know, I was – I’m a cancer survivor myself, and I went through these struggles when I was sick, and I’m particularly sensitive to them. And what happens is you become overwhelmed. So, you know, email, Facebook – these types of things are a great way of notifying large numbers of people. My father finally passed, for an example, after a long illness.
But you tend to get these things, and there are these mass emails, and what do you do? Is it OK to send an email response? Do you send it privately? Are you supposed to then get out a note card and write a note card response? And so I sought out some people who were in this space, and I was a little surprised what I heard, but people said to me consistently. If the griever feels comfortable sending an email, you should feel comfortable sending – or it’s OK to feel comfortable to send an email in response. Just don’t hit reply all because you don’t want to be in this situation of sending it suddenly to 250 people.