Few tasks could be sadder in our online lives than deleting a dead friend from your email contact list.
A college friend of mine died this year. (She was a woman in her 40s. If you guessed "breast cancer," congratulations on making the obvious choice.) It's been several months. But only today did I swallow my feelings and delete her from my email contact list.
Email, for you Facebook Generation youngsters, is an old-fashioned means of communication we middle-aged folk began using back in the 1980s. Even though we use Facebook too, we cling to email because we're not 100% comfortable in social media.
And Facebook is, indeed, something else again. My friend's profile isn't just still there, it's still active. Friends and relatives post to it. Not just "I miss you" messages, but messages to each other:
"Nice to see you here again. How was your vacation?"
"We commemorated her today by [doing this or that]."
"Here's news about the fellowship that's being established in her name."
It's nice. A memorial. A place those who miss the dead person can gather, if only fleetingly and virtually.
But hopping over to another dead friend's Facebook page, I saw this:
"Your face popped up on my wall today and I smiled."
Ouch. Not me. Dead friends' faces popping on my computer screen freak me out.
Maybe that's another generational thing. Maybe through social media we're evolving into a new kind of immortal creature—one whose meat form can die but whose virtual form lives on…perhaps even with supernatural powers. More than one person on this second friend's wall have actually asked him to give them strength.
Some cultures worship ancestors. Maybe a new form of worship of the dead is coming into being, born of technology that keeps the dead ever-present and in some sense alive, inches in front of us on the little screens on which we now live so much of our lives.
One of the tasks of religion, historically, has been to reinforce our appreciation of those who went before us. In the Jewish tradition, for example, remembrance of the dead is an explicit part of regular ritual through saying the Mourner's Kaddish.
Now that we have Facebook, will we need religion to do this anymore?