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Talking to the Online Dead

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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?

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • An odd thing, I suppose, is that though my brother died almost two decades ago, I’ve never visited his grave other than being there and speaking at his funeral. It was before Facebook, so I missed dealing with the oddities that must present.

    I find my peace in celebrating the life he lived, remembering the times we talked, and every time I hear Pink Floyd, remembering some of his great stories about the band and how it moved and helped carry him past the accident that eventually took his life.

    Memories are a thing those of us in that 1980s generation, I think, tend to hold onto a little more dearly than our more modern Facebook counterparts, as they’re not only a link to the past, but more importantly ‘our’ past. They aren’t posted anywhere other than with us, and there isn’t any social record of it.

    I’m torn between calling the social tragedy bits a logical evolution, or thinking them to be a bit Frankenstein. I suppose we all deal with grief differently. For me, I hold the memories close, and avoid the markers and mementos that for me mark a loss, rather than celebrating a life well lived.

    Thought provoking post. Thanks Jon, and thanks to Victor for linking it.

  • Certainly we can. Although now that the technology is part of our lives, it becomes a matter of the human condition.

  • Meenakshi

    A friend is still alive in Facebook though she is dead. It looks funny and at the same time very sad. Can we attribute this uneasy situation to technology ?

  • There are also online “memory books” and other things that keep the memory alive. I only wish that I had done more recording of my mother (voice and picture) for my children now that she is gone. But the spirit is forever, so maybe this is another way for it to be realized.

  • You’re right, Mansi, but re-reading letters was something you chose to do when you chose to do it – they didn’t flutter up in front of your face when you were doing something else. Of course, people also used to keep pictures of dead relatives in their house – and some still do.

  • I don’t think it’s new … we used to have letters — you know the old-fashioned paper kinds — that people kept, read and re-read long after someone passed away; then there are those famous people immortalized by movies. Social media isn’t inventing a new type of immortalization … it’s just the way of the 21st century to e-everything.