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The Slideshow at the End of the Universe

Forget selfies at funerals: Technology’s already changed how we experience death

The bodies are gone.

They were there when my grandparents and a school friend died in the 90s: open casket, Sunday best, familiar face subtly altered by embalming fluid and makeup.

Disturbing and uncomfortable, yes. Particularly in the latter case.

Aaron was run over in front of his high school. An older student was playing a game of chicken with a classmate. He lost control of the car and killed Aaron as he sat on a nearby curb reading violin sheet music. It was a beautiful October day. He was in Grade 9.

I remember seeing the bruising on his face and hands that makeup couldn’t hide. The puffy, swollen cheeks that made him look unlike himself. The tiny, not-quite invisible stitches holding his eyelids closed.

I wanted to un-see those details. I still do, and can’t.

But that reckoning was necessary. Through such terrible details I came to understand and accept that he was dead.

*

The last three times I’ve been to a funeral or wake, I have seen no bodies.

Last week, I went to Tim’s wake. He died of brain cancer. He was 48. He’s the first of my adult friends to die.

We met through our writing group over eight years ago. Knowing he was losing his ability to select a perfect word, form beautiful sentences and finally to communicate at all was wrenching.

For a writer, how could it not be?

Brain cancer took all that from him along with his physical health. When I last saw him in May (I don’t think he wanted to be seen), he was thin and frail. His hair was gone, the new surgery scars vivid on his skull. His hands shook. The pauses between one word and the next were punctuated with effort rather than his usual thoughtfulness.

When I arrived at the funeral home with another writing friend, I dreaded seeing the final changes chemotherapy and more surgeries had brought upon him.

I needn’t have worried. Tim was gone.

Instead, there was a slideshow.

*

Tim was a private person. I didn’t know very much about his family when he died. I don’t think I ever will.

I’m happy to know there was a time when he fell asleep with a baby on his chest. I liked the photos of him with his sisters and their children, and the photos of him as a child.

I had seen some of his more gruesome Halloween costumes before, and the photo of an office cube he once filled with popcorn. He loved practical jokes.

There were also some particularly moving photos of Tim with his new bride, who is now his widow.

But the Tim I knew, Tim the writer, wasn’t in those photos. How could he be? We rarely took photos when we met.

My friend and I left the funeral glad to have supported his family but still crushed by his loss. To be honest, without having seen his body, it’s hard in some ways to believe that he’s gone.

So I’m not bothered by the Selfies at Funerals trend, highlighted by Jason Feifer over the last week and now a global media sensation. As Caitlin Doughty has eloquently observed, they’re a blip in a far larger cultural shift to digital mourning that includes everything from funeral homes to PowerPoint.

If photos are now a primary tool of grief, then take them.

Take photos of everything, everywhere.

Because the slideshow at the end of the universe is waiting for us all.