A Millennial’s Guide to Selfies at Funerals

Why it’s not as apocalyptic as you think

If you’ve been a citizen of the internet for the past week, you’ve probably seen all of the buzz around a new Tumblr (curated by Fast Company editor Jason Feifer) called Selfies at Funerals.

New York Magazine put it somewhere on it’s culture matrix close to “Despicable” and “Low Brow”, The Huffington Post declared it cringe-worthy, and Business Insider brushed it off as a “narcissistic impulse…that could not be resisted.”

You know it’s not about you, it’s about the deceased, so can you back down on the selfies for the moment? — Lizzie Post at CNN, taking this way too seriously.

This kind of thinking completely dismisses a greater context. I’m writing this post not because I’m an expert in teen thinking,or the grieving process that we go through, but because just a few weeks ago I was at a family funeral too.

I think what people are missing out on are 4 core touchpoints that are contextual and especially important for the people who are portrayed in these images — teens.

They have the least proximity to death

The amazing things that Google will tell you about Life Expectancy

I think it’s safe to deduce from the fact that the US Life Expectancy hovers around 78 years of age that mostly older individuals are the ones inducing these funerals except for the statistical outlier. Also consider the fact that only 3.8% of American Households are Multi-Generational, meaning that it would span to include grandparents, parents, and children.

Taking that information into context, a vast majority of these teenagers don’t have the connection or proximity to the elderly deceased that probably have in their own individual networks. Once-a-month phone calls with Grandma don’t equate to the endless stream of text messages I experience with my friends, parents, or siblings. I’m certainly not speaking for all cases here, of all participants in a funeral, these teens are probably the ones who had the weakest bonds formed with the deceased — children, spouses, sisters, even friends will have had a much longer and more nuanced bond with an individual most likely. I’m also not even going to get into the whole concept of “young invincibles” but there could be something there as well. On top of this also lies the assumption that the deceased is even a relative.

It’s a miniature family reunion

Funerals are often the thing that pull up cousins, uncles and other long-lost family out of the woodwork. The one that I was most recently at included family members that I didn’t even know existed, let alone could recognize. While most of the selfies curated on the site are solo, many of the other results around the 208,000+ Instagram images with #Funeral actually include family. The mourning isn’t just an individual experience, it is one that’s being shared with other people.

This occasion to dress up isn’t all that contextually different

Sure this is going to sound really shallow, but the number of events that occur where a teenager has to actually dress up beyond the formality of Sunday Church are limited to events like school dances, awards ceremonies, and maybe the occasional wedding. In the greater schema of the selfie, sharing what you look like, right now, is an incredibly common thing. I have 4 teenage cousins (all of whom I follow on Instagram) and from all of them I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more than one or two images images that are not selfies.
If there’s already 54 Million images on Instagram tagged #Selfie, that would make the percentage shown on this blog .000038% of #Selfies. If I wanted to be generous and assumed that all of the images tagged #funeral were also #selfies, that would still bring the overall percentage of selfies at funerals to a whopping .38%.

They have a reinforced feedback loop around this behavior

While mostly evident through anecdotal content (albeit anecdotal content on the New York Times), it seems that the content most widely ‘liked’ on Instagram is when it includes a selfie.

The rare occasion when I feel bold enough to post a full-face frontal, I see spikes in comments and feedback, the kind that pictures of a park or a concert photo rarely get. -Jenna Wortham, My Selfie,Myself

On top of that, and while this may be a stretch — there are typically spikes of chatter on Twitter around significant events (specifically, celebrity deaths). Based on this, it’s possible to conclude that similar spikes happen around personalized content when expressing sympathy or empathy for others in your own social network. This could also lead to a spike in comments, likes, or feedback further reinforcing the teen’s initial desire to share this kind of content.

Basically, we’re all blowing it out of proportion

Teens, especially those pictured in Selfies at Funerals are probably the furthest removed from the deceased emotionally. In the grand scheme of things, they are also a statistical margin — a minor commentary that will be a blip compared to their individual lifetime of content creation. Beyond that, the blog didn’t display anything that I would perceive to be a major grievance (photos at the wake, photos of the body,etc) and I think that PJ Vogt summed it up best:

“To state the obvious, don’t tell anyone how to grieve. Especially children.”
- PJ Vogt, On Defense of Funeral Selfies
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