How Technology is Transforming the Afterlife
BY SIMON CONSTABLE
"I’m not sure my mother understands Twitter or why I tell her millions of people love her — but she says she’s ver[sic] touched,” Scott Simon tweeted to 1.3 million followers on his mother’s deathbed.
It was one of many such public announcements the NPR journalist and host of Weekend Edition Saturday made in the weeks leading up to his mother’s passing:
Simon wasn’t the first to do so, but his broadcast of the before, during, and after-death experience inspired both intense public criticism and unfailing support. As one reviewer said, “He just needs an Internet hug.” Another was less sympathetic: “What’s with the tweet when he said he was holding his mother’s hand? I imagined him by his mother’s side doing just that … and typing in his tweet with the other hand. It’s his way of dealing, but in my experience, sometimes you’re more in the moment if you just put your mobile device away.”
So explores the chapter on “Tweeting Death, Posting Photos” in Department of Philosophy Chair and Associate Professor Christopher M. Moreman’s 2014 co-edited book, Digital Death: Mortality and Beyond in the Online Age. The collection of essays in this uncharted field of study was awarded the 2015 Ray and Pat Browne Award for Best Edited Collection in Popular and American Culture. “Digital reality is so prevalent and ubiquitous, it’s become a part of what it means to be a person,” Moreman contends. “If you’re going to study anything about a person physically, you now have to consider that person virtually.”
Composed of research on a wide variety of topics, Digital Death looks at everything from the serious (cyberbullying), to the pragmatic (how to access information stored online), to the creepy (death images on Instagram and Pinterest), to the cult (online communities that mourn the death of fictional TV and gaming characters).
For Moreman, who has devoted his life’s scholarship and teaching to the folklore and pop culture of death and dying, the book was a chance to explore a particular interest — online memorial.
“There are now so many alternative ways to memorialize the dead,” Moreman explains. For instance, if a loved one dies halfway around the globe, it could be hard or expensive to get to a funeral — online provides easier access.
It also allows more freedom.
Moreman presents the situation of siblings cleaning out the home of a deceased grandmother. “One wants to throw everything away and be done with it, and the other wants to comb through items carefully and find things to remember her by. Who’s to say which is healthier?” he asks. Taking this scenario digital, Moreman points out that an online memorial is simply another opportunity for “each person to explore grief in their own way.”
He is first to acknowledge, however, that social media can also be unsettling. Moreman recalls a personal example in which he learned about the passing of someone close via the post of an unknown third party on Facebook. “Usually you would get a phone call about such a thing. But, in this case, it enabled me to reach out to the family quickly and offer help to my friend, who was alone.”
There are the practical matters, too. With 1.49 billion users worldwide (30 million of which are estimated to have already outlived their profiles, according to a company called Entrustet), Facebook’s reach into the world of digital death is vast, deep, and inevitable. The social media giant has long held a death policy, but a recent update shifts online memorial into the realm of afterlife planning.
Previously, Facebook allowed families to memorialize or delete an account pending proof of death, but it now offers a “legacy contact” option — the pre-designated steward of the deceased’s postmortem digital existence. “It raises a lot of important questions,” Moreman says. For example, how do you want your life curated after you die? Sanitized, perhaps? Who should inherit your social media profile and maintain it for how long? “We are just learning the answers to these questions now,” he says.
THE BUSINESS OF DEATH
As another point of interest, online memorial is also making its way beyond computer and tablet screens and into graveyards. Although digital death-inspired ventures span the gamut from a 99 cent app that prerecords messages to be played after a person’s passing to virtual flowers and candles, new headstone technology has the potential to turn cemeteries into interactive, virtual museums. For example, one company sells music chips that hold playlists for visitors to listen to at the gravesite. Some offer QR codes that route to online profile pages about the deceased through smartphones, which nearly any passing visitor could tap into. “Maybe it will change the way we look at privacy,” Moreman says.
While many already feel the age of digital memorial affords greater access and builds community among mourners, others perceive finding out about it and sharing the experience of it through posts and tweets a crude abomination. So then, on a net basis, does the new digital world of death add something or does it take away? “It has the possibility to be better,” Moreman offers. “People now have more options about how they approach mourning. But, there haven’t been a lot of studies on these interconnections, and the purpose of the book is to show that there are important questions that need investigating.” What the book does do is give readers a good deal to chew on — to consider their own experiences and decide which emerging cultural norms to participate in, and which traditions to hold on to.
Saved by the Screen?
By Gretchen Reevy, PhD
Online memorial is a way of dealing with death — perhaps it could be called cyber-coping — that allows users to employ a wide range of coping mechanisms that are not entirely different from the “traditional” ways of dealing with death. One of the most common approaches to categorizing how a person deals with any stressor in life is whether they engage or disengage.
Engagement coping mechanisms involve clearly acknowledging the stressor and, if it can be changed, dealing with it “head on.” In this case the stressor (a death) cannot be changed, but there is still the possibility of extensive engagement through creating, posting, contributing to, and/or regularly visiting an online memorial.
By contrast, disengagement coping mechanisms involve distancing oneself from the stressor — for instance, denying that it occurred or seeking distractions, frequently through unhealthy habits like drugs/alcohol, or other diversions, such as TV, work, etc. Online memorial presents a twist to the engage/disengage categorization theory because it can function both ways — as a constructive way of experiencing and sharing grief, or as a type of ‘pseudo-engagement’ that perpetuates denial and distraction. For instance, a person could post a requisite comment/tribute on a memorial page and then possibly never deal with their grief in other ways.
As a fairly extreme example, the person could tell himself/herself that the online post was adequate acknowledgment of the death, and thus feel “excused” from attending face-to-face burial or funeral gatherings. But, the public visibility of online memorial may create the misconception among family and friends that so-and-so is doing just fine.
At the same time, the above construction assumes that participating in an online memorial is an effective coping strategy, which it may well be, but it could also become a compulsion that hinders a person from moving forward in their own life, or a disengagement mechanism in and of itself. The important thing to remember is, there is nothing intrinsically healthy or unhealthy about the evolving cultural reality of online memorial — like so much that occurs in the virtual world, each individual brings their own psychology to the situation and creates their own emotional reality.