Technically Dead

In an age when our physical selves have two-dimensional lives online, when our communications and interactions are built with zeros and ones, and where geography collapses in the spaceless realm of the internet, it’s safe to say that few aspects of our lives escape the grasp of the digital.

In life, we call this convenience. But when it comes to death, the lives we led online morph into an eternal afterlife of the self, an undying presence haunting the ones we leave behind. And as we continue to interact with death in this way, technology is changing the way we grieve, mourn and memorialize the dead — for better or worse.

The most prominent way this shift is taking shape is through social media. It is estimated that between 2065 and 2098, more profiles on Facebook will belong to the dead than to the living. Already, more than 10,000 Facebook users die every day, creating a virtual graveyard rife with ghosts. The profiles that are left behind are building a host of scenarios with dueling pros and cons: Is this a helpful way to mourn the dead, or harmful?

The most prolific situation the immortal profile creates is the constant reminder of a loved one’s death. On Facebook, birthday notifications arrive; memory posts pop with unassuming excitement; you’re asked if you’d like to invite the deceased to your event, or like your page, or tag them in your photo. Innocently enough, Facebook is retriggering the death over and over again.

This can come as a shock and prolong the grieving process. Where once the matter a person left behind was physical (a sweater) or ephemeral (a memory), now we have to confront the digital minutiae that are out of our control and alive in our daily lives.

“Even if you forget about [the death] and they aren’t active on your feed day to day, you’ll be brought back into the fact that they’ve died and that people are still mourning, year after year,” says Molly Kalan, a researcher of grief online. “It makes the tail of grief a little longer.”

This can also work to push the intimacy of grief further away. For one, people now often announce deaths via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, both risking the chance that not everyone will see the post and removing a personal layer from the news. Becky Olson, for example, found out about her father’s suicide on Facebook; the news spread faster on social media than the speed at which her mother could travel to tell her.

“Losing a parent is hard. Losing a parent to suicide is awful. Learning you’ve lost a parent to suicide on Facebook is downright traumatic,” writes Olson.

But there’s also the overall showmanship of social media, where insincerity breeds even in the face of tragedy. Claire Wilmot, who wrote the essay “The Space Between Mourning and Grief” for the Atlantic, recounted the hyperbole spread by her sister’s social media friends following her death: “It was as though an online community felt the need to claim a stake in her death, through syrupy posts that profoundly misrepresented who she was and sanitized what had happened to her.”

Wilmot equates this outpouring of seemingly false bereavement to the mass outpourings of grief that surface in the wake of high-profiles deaths du jour: celebrity deaths, the victims of mass shootings, or the martyrs of police shootings. To her, the majority of people pontificating online about these deaths are not looking for a space to publicly grieve; they’re exhibiting showmanship and subsequently trivializing loss.

“Social media often reproduces the worst cultural failings surrounding death,” writes Wilmot, “namely platitudes that help those on the periphery of a tragedy rationalize what has happened, but obscure the uncomfortable, messy reality of loss.”

To some, however, technology is helping us confront this “uncomfortable, messy reality.” While Olson admonishes the experience of finding out about her father’s suicide on Facebook, she now sees the positive side of using social media to grieve: After meeting another suicide survivor, Jessica Hutchison, at a support group, the two women founded the online platform Our Side of Suicide, where they invite others to share their grief online.

“Keeping the conversation where it initiated, Facebook has become my platform to inspire dialogue about this misunderstood and hush-hush topic,” writes Olson. “I’m still bothered by the role social media played in my survivor journey but, with time, I have been able to shift my focus to feeling appreciative of the support I have received from friends and readers there.”

As Western culture has become more secular, we’ve pushed ritual away from our lives. Not long ago, grief was guided by rite — wearing black, saying prayers, covering mirrors, cooking certain dishes, wrapping bands around our arms — which served to help us move through mourning or know how to help others in the process. Now, mourning has become a private, unritualized experience, and many feel sequestered in their grief.

Platforms like Olson’s are deliberate attempts to create a public space that both destigmatizes death and connects those in mourning — but lingering social accounts of the dead are naturally and inadvertently forcing this shift across the internet at large. Memorialized Facebook accounts now provide a space to send notes to the dead or a place for the grieving community to gather and share memories, effectively pulling grief into the public realm in a way we haven’t seen in decades. And by normalizing these public displays, we are renormalizing grief in general.

“Seeing people be vulnerable and share those emotions online is creating this space where that’s OK to do,” says Kalan.

This goes beyond social media, however — technology at large is reaching across the aisle to pull us further into the experience of mourning.

In 2012, when her mother died unexpectedly, Susie was living abroad in Asia and on bedrest for a high-risk pregnancy. She couldn’t fly home for the funeral, so she improvised: A friend held an iPad at the ceremony, and Susie, dressed in black on her couch with a lit candle, watched the funeral via Skype.

Though this was a tough personal circumstance for Susie, the trend of livestreaming funerals is becoming increasingly popular in more formalized settings. Many funeral homes offer the service, while mourners like Susie participate in a DIY version due to geographical limitations. But while this is convenient, Susie felt the experience subverted the closure that physical participation in a funeral can bring.

“My gratitude for technology is so deep,” she says, “but it in no way replaces what I feel is part of the healing that takes place when you are grieving in community with the people who also experienced loss.”

There are still other ways to commune with death in the virtual realm. In light of vast geographical distances and lack of room for memorial spaces in traditional cemeteries, more and more entities are constructing virtual cemeteries where mourners can visit online gravesites, send simulated flowers, or partake in other rituals.

This is particularly popular in Asia, where terrestrial space is especially limited. The Japanese company I-Can Corp lets mourners pour virtual water or light a virtual incense stick, and Hong Kong created a social media network of virtual graves for families who had been forced to cremate their relatives’ ashes. In the United States, the website Find a Grave is a crowdsourced database of photos of headstones all across the country. Or there are sites like MuchLoved Gardens and the World Wide Cemetery, which allow users to create virtual memorial pages where visitors can leave comments, flowers, and photos, as well as light candles.

The question remains, however: Does this help or hinder?

“We still haven’t quite figured it out,” says David Sloane, professor of public policy at the University of Southern California and author of the forthcoming book Is the Cemetery Dead? “We’re not sure it’s successful for people. Does it help them mourn as a community? Or is it still, like so many digital things, me talking to my screen? It’s really just the beginning, both for the cemetery and for places like Facebook.”