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Mourning Digitally

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Sleepy Hollow Graveyard. Photo by KDCosta, December 2011.

Ed Note: Another flashback from the archives of AiP this Friday, though a sombre one at that. It’s rainy and dreary here in New York City, and my thoughts are a bit dark today.

How are social technologies changing the experience of death for those charged with remembering?

Death has been referred to as the great equalizer—it is the one fate we cannot escape. And cultures around the world have developed highly ritualized approaches to coping with death. For example, Alan Klima (2002) documents the funeral casino in Thailand where rites of exchange work to mediate the relationships between the living, and between the living and the deceased (7). In Thailand, Klima reports, wakes are transformed into impromptu casinos. He describes the wake scene of the death of a beloved father:

“Dealers came and set up roulette wheels. Or they came with a bowl of dice and a big betting rug, each one good for a crowd of ten or twenty gamblers to sit around and cast their lots. The house family let loose, on the crowds, quart-sized bottles of Mekong brand rice rum to navigate through the spaces between bodies, with mixer bottles of Coke, Pepsi, Singha soda, water, and tin buckets of ice in hot pursuit. Packs of slicing and dicing cousins and aunts were spinning out plates of fried meats, raw pork, and saucy vegetables from their encampment in the kitchen. Family members were send forth onto the casino floor, to extract from time to time a cut of the dealers’ profits. And the dealers were raking it in all over the place, starting from gambling operations set up right next to and under the coffin of the dead father, fanning out over the whole living room floor space, out onto the porch, and beyond that, spilling into the open air of the yard in the front … And they kept coming—mourners, gamblers, and dealers … Of course, no one would sit down to play without first bowing to the corpse—could you imagine that, placing your precious money at risk with a big coffin standing over you, to which you haven’t paid respects? (2002: 248).”

Ravina Aggarwal (2001) writes of a funeral feast she attended in the village of Achinathang:

“They had come for this last farewell, bringing gifts in memory of this expert weaver who had woven so many robes to clothe their bodies. There was so much beer that the keg was filled. A neighbor collected the offerings on the family’s behalf, announcing the house names of the donors. The joking and laughter of the men (who had taken up positions on the right hand side of the threshing ground) merged with the elegy of the widow and her chil- dren (seated on the left) and the incantations recited by the astrologer (who sat at the center). More and more people came (554).”

These are both acts of remembering, which are echoed in the rites and rituals of cultures around the world. The purpose for the gathering for the deceased, in whatever form it may take, is both for the benefit of the corpse and that of the family. Many cultures believe the deceased may be confused and requires company until the body can be interred or otherwise disposed of (Klima 2002; Dernbach 2005). And it’s a time the network to which the deceased was a member to gather and comfort each other. But wakes and other funeral rites also mark the beginning of a process of distancing. The deceased was fully integrated into a network, the “social and emotional lives of those left behind are intimately tied to the deceased person, and adjusting to this change and loss is a difficult and long- term process” (Dernbach 2005: 100). Conklin (2001) writes that through the grieving process, mourners are “transforming their perceived relationship to the dead person by going through a process in which they gradually confront their memories of the deceased one by one, accept the reality that their relationship to the deceased has ended, and let go emotionally of their attachments to the object of their loss” (171).

The process of memorial is also a process of forgetting. There is a mourning period for the community. For example, in the Jewish religion, the deceased are meant to be buried within 24 hours of death foregoing any extenuating circumstances. The family then sits shiva, or mourns for a week, or less depending on how observant they are of the religious practices. While private grief may continue long after the “prescribed” mourning period, there comes a point where the deceased’s public memory is reduced to a death anniversary. The deceased is removed from the network. But Web 2.0 is changing the experience of death—both for the deceased as well as the survivors. Web 2.0 is making death an interactive experience, providing mourners with an opportunity to access a community for support, while sharing their grief and preserving memories of the deceased.

The growing popularity of the memorial pages on Facebook suggests that grief and death have moved online. Of course, we had clear indications that this was the case as the Twitterverse responded to the deaths of celebrities like Michael Jackson in 2009. Memorial pages, however, allow mourners to collectively gather and share mementos with one another in a single place—sentiments, photos, videos, even music can all be stored in a single virtual location to be accessed whenever desired. It provides a digital address for the deceased where mourners can continually visit, whereas Twitter more provides an opportunity for an immediate response. And it’s not limited to those within the deceased’s network. Memorial pages prolong the process of distancing, but they also reinforce the connections that members of the network have with each other—even with the deceased gone. For example, a student who created a memorial page for a victim of the Virginia Tech tragedy felt that Facebook allowed the community to pull together: “We were all scattered around the country, but this was a way we could be together.” In this way, the social network is not ruptured or forced into reshaping itself to account for the loss of a member, as may be the case in off-line mourning. The process process for distancing is gradual in this model. Furthermore, the digital management of death appears gives people more control over how the deceased will be remembered in terms of what they choose to share and post about the deceased.

This does potentially raise some issues, however. For example, what if the family is not comfortable with the content of the memorial? Or wants the memorial removed? Does the digital community that participated in the memorial have any say? And should they even be considered in this decision? As grief and mourning become more public, these may be issues that have to be contended with. Of course, some feel that Twitter has handicapped our ability to mourn. What are your thoughts?

Aggarwal, R. (2001). At the Margins of Death: Ritual Space and the Politics of Location in an Indo-Himalayan Border Village American Ethnologist, 28 (3), 549-573 DOI: 10.1525/ae.2001.28.3.549

Conklin, B. (2001). Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. Austin.

Dernbach, Katherine Boris. (2005). Spirits of the Hereafter: Death, Funerary Possession, and the Afterlife in Chuuk, Micronesia. Ethnology, 44 (2), 99-123

Klima, Alan. (2002). The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. Princeton: University Press.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. mindmuse 11:26 am 01/27/2012

    I recently lost my husband unexpectedly at the age of 39. I have found much comfort and support over these past weeks in being able to stay connected to our family members, friends and co-workers through Facebook and the Offterra memorial page. We all live in different parts of the country and the world. Web 2.0 allows us to share stories, memories, favorite photos, songs, and places, as well as post updates. More people can learn about and celebrate my husband’s life and legacy. I also have more control over my time when I communicate virtually. Although Web 2.0 does not replace the power of a hug, people in my virtual social networks have been very supportive of my family through these difficult times.

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  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 11:39 am 01/27/2012

    mindmuse, I am so sorry for your loss. But I am heartened to hear that you have found some support via the social channels you may participate in. You raised an important point about being able to control your time. Grieving can be an intensely personal experience, and sometimes even the most well-meaning folks might not understand that. With social media, people can let you know they support you and you can respond on your own terms. There also isn’t a set grieving period. The wake is typically when family gathers for support, but afterwards the person who has suffered the loss may be left to themselves. These channels allow support to continue as needed.

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  3. 3. EyesOpen56 3:09 pm 01/27/2012

    Hi mindmuse! I checked out this link, and found your comment! Wanted to let you know that I’m glad to see your links popping up in my fb newsfeed . . . hope that you are easing back into life gently. More and more often I’m personally learning how my on-line life has crossed over and become so much deeper than a computer monitor screen experience. It’s RL2, and my life has been SO enriched. Always, your friend Julie.

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  4. 4. denysYeo 6:43 pm 01/27/2012

    An interesting and though provoking Blog.
    I think there are two things to consider here; the immediate impact of dealing with death (funerals, mourning, grief and so on) and longer term memories of a deceased person. With digital media these two aspects of someone passing away are becoming more and more inter-related particularly as the digital footprint a person leaves behind becomes increasingly pervasive.
    As someone with a life threatening illness I have put a lot of effort into developing a strong presence on the World Wide Web. My hope is that when I am gone people will be able to use this material, and any additional material they produce, to deal with both my immediate passing and any need they may have to remember me in the future. For some people I may never quite “go away”. Yet I already know this is not how some people have learned to deal with death, many people expect to progress through a mourning process that eventually results in a “distancing” between them and the deceased; and even though, as you point out, digital mourning may give people more control over this process the aim is the same.
    As we get better at “preserving” people in digital form these issues are likely to become even more complicated. What will the new rituals look like and to what extent will digital material pervade ceremonies such as funerals? If a person is likely to exist in digital form what will this mean for letting go? Already some recently deceased “famous” people do not seem to be ready to go any time soon! Steve Jobs, for example, seems to exist as much on the web as her ever did, and given that living in New Zealand I was never likely to meet him, his mortal status is not particularly relevant to how I “interact” with him.
    Regardless of how these matters are dealt with I am sure that eventually as much as the internet pervades our lives, while we are alive, it will also pervade our “after life”.

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  5. 5. Beanteam 7:25 am 01/28/2012

    A close friend of mine passed unexpectedly in September just 3 days after her 50th birthday. Her Facebook page remains and I often visit it to remember her. Though I don’t post messages, many of her friends and family regularly post to “her”–sharing stories, memories and their grief.

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  6. 6. Hasufin 2:05 pm 01/31/2012

    Something that concerns me about the Facebook article is the presumption that blood relation equals closeness. I know of many people, especially in gays and transgenders, who are estranged from their biological families. They dealing with the reality that the current legal system confers a great deal of control not to their loves ones but to a group of people who do not accept them and have pledged to abuse that leverage to cause harm. Often, the digital is a refuge – here is the one place where you can create, and be yourself, and it’s safe from such abuse. but, it seems, even here biological family can gain the power to destroy a gay man’s blog, a transgender woman’s history… to “delete” the supposed shame of having such a family member, against the wishes of the deceased.

    We have a more mobile populace than ever in the past. “Family” is not defined by genetics, and “close” has nothing to do with physical proximity. Perhaps the question of how we mourn should not be “How do we adapt our traditional methods to deal with the online world?” but rather “How do we, the digital natives, mourn create our own mourning customs?”

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  7. 7. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 10:09 am 02/2/2012

    denys, thanks for sharing your story with us. The issue of a digital legacy is something that I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about. There are companies that specialize in executing the digital estate of the deceased — so if you have an email account you’d prefer your spouse never found or you want your digital material maintained in a certain way, they’ll manage that for you. So it certainly seems that people are increasingly aware that a digital presence may be a lasting one.

    Your point about Jobs and his mortal status in relation to you—he certainly is much more “real” online, isn’t he? And as a result, his digital presence may mean something else entirely to you as compared to family members. I’m interested in seeing how people continue to interact with these spaces over time, and whether they acquire more “traditional” memorial spaces and undergo the same process of decay with time.

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  8. 8. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 10:17 am 02/2/2012

    Beanteam, your example speaks volumes about the ways these spaces can help knit a community together. I am glad you can use it as a place of remembrance and gain some comfort from it.

    Hasufin, I saw your comment after I had responded to denys, but I think the growth of digital remains management businesses suggests that there are some tools to combat this type of abuse. The online space is indeed used as a refuge, but I think the issues you raise remind us that it’s a public refuge and it can face intense criticism from different parties. We definitely need to start thinking about these spaces in our estate planning decisions.

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