Death has a sobering effect on the soul. It wakens us not only to our own mortality, but the inevitable ending of much that we know and are used to in life. Nothing ever stays the same, but death is an inevitable constant. Young or old, healthy or sick–the truth is, death does not discriminate.
Every culture has a death ritual in place, a way for the living to celebrate the lives of those that passed. Mourning can be a solitary burden or a shared experience, depending on the impact of the death and the personalities of those affected. Loved ones are often sent off through one of the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth.
As our daily lives have gradually become both infiltrated and validated by the importance of social media, death grips us in a different way. When someone we know dies, even just a casual acquaintance or friend of a friend, the news travels to us via our Facebook feed.
When I was in my first year of college, a friend I’d known since elementary school passed away. We were never extremely close, but outside of school I knew him well enough that I’d gone to his Bar Mitzvah and shared an occasional bowl with him on our way to Warped Tour.
Although we had a real life friendship, we had grown apart since high school, but remained friends on Facebook. It was on that famous social networking site where I heard about his death through a post made by a mutual friend. RIP. You will be missed. Always in our hearts. The comments of sympathy rolled in as I stared at my computer screen.
As I sat there, in shock at the words and the notion that someone I knew was now dead, I also felt strangely annoyed. Why had I not found out about this in some other way? A phone call, an email–anything else but a Facebook post.
As I struggled with the myriad of feelings that accompany a death, I watched as my friend’s Facebook page became a memorial to their life and those that knew him. Favorite memories were shared along with photos and heartfelt words expressing a great sense of loss. Many spoke directly to the deceased, reaching for a sense of resolution.
Friends and family members continuously commented on each other’s posts with kind words and empathy. In a sense, these interactions served as a digital support group, at least on the surface.
But as the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months, the months to years, the posts became less frequent and my dead friend’s Facebook page grew silent, abandoned. Although he had already been laid to rest, his ghost continuously haunted me when I scrolled through my list of Facebook friends. Someone had even taken down his profile photo, which made the experience of coming across his name even more shocking; An outline of a person, where that person should have been.
Although I felt sad when I saw his name, I couldn’t bring myself to “unfriend” him. Ultimately, he was still my friend even though I would never get to talk to him again. Still, it felt odd to have a Facebook friend who was dead, but even odder to even be entertaining these kinds of thoughts.
As I get older and have lost others in my life who were also Facebook friends, I often consider these things and my personal feelings on the matter.
While I was fortunate to attend the wakes of two friends who passed away, I never did get to say goodbye in person to that first friend who died. I often have dreams of him, to this day, where I’m talking to him and he’s telling me that he’s okay. It’s so strange how the ritual of a funeral can truly bring resolution to a death.
Even so, death on social media is still something I struggle with, even at this very moment, as the news of another acquaintance’s death has found its way to me via my Facebook news feed. While I contemplate my participation in the conversation surrounding this death, I’m reminded of a quote by Edgar Allan Poe from Mesmeric Revelation: “What we call ‘death,’ is but the painful metamorphosis. Our present incarnation is progressive, preparatory, temporary. Our future is perfected, ultimate, immortal. The ultimate life is the full design.”
In short, it isn’t until a person is gone that we truly can put together a picture of their life as a whole. Although social media is in a sense a curated piece of a person, and not necessarily their whole truth, it is nonetheless them. Their personality may linger through the words and pictures they chose to share with the world; they are immortal for as long as their page stays up even if it has been a year since someone posted on it.
Ultimately, interacting with the Facebook page of a loved one after their death has become a new form of ritual; soon it will be no stranger than carrying around a locket of hair from the deceased or visiting a gravesite. As more and more of our lives are lived online, perhaps we’ll also become more comfortable with the familiarity of death, and the digital legacy we’ll all inevitably leave behind some day.