Digital condolences: Are we trivializing the language of death?
I recently discovered that an old friend, whom I hadn't seen for several years, had passed away. It came as a shock.
I didn't know how to reach her family, so I did the only thing I could think of to connect: I looked her up on Facebook.
There I found pages and pages of condolences, most written about (let's call her) Jane, the more traditional way. But some were written to her, as if she were still alive.
There were comments like: "OMG...RIP SOOOOO sorry to hear of your passing." "Luv n thoughts r w u, i hope ur @ peace wherever u r." "You are now somewhere safe and worry free!"
"R.I.P. YOU WILL BE MISSED SOOOOOO MUCH!!" And, "I'm sorry, Jane."
Somehow I felt pressured to write her a little note as well. But it felt odd, uncomfortable even. And I wondered why.
I get that Facebook is a place to mourn — a digital gravesite, if you will.
But the difference is that what I would say graveside to my friend, or write in a letter to her parents or loved ones, is private. With Facebook, everyone's condolence is there for all to read.
But what really bothers me is that these postings seem so mindless — that people don't even have the courtesy to write a proper sentence to someone who has just died.
Internet expert Jesse Hirsh suggests that the flippant comments could be some people's way of addressing the absurdity of a death when that person's profile is still active.
Today's social media, he says, merely reflects a society that is increasingly secular and doesn't yet have a protocol for dealing with death in a respectful manner.
Another element here is that digital technology has allowed us to adapt to a different model of communication, says Marco Adria, director of the Master of Arts in communications and technology program at the University of Alberta.
"We don't write things to have them interpreted, we write for them to be broadcast. Like a radio broadcast, once it's said, it's gone."
Now it's making sense. Now I understand the posting: "I WAS SO PRIVILEGED TO HAVE KNOWN YOU."
It's a kind of Sarah Palin-style shout out — folksy and inappropriate at the same time.
But that's OK, says Adria. "Because conversations are complicated. Talking to the dead online can be easier than talking to people in real life, which can be messy and not turn out as you want."
Dead people talking
Also, it's becoming easier to write to the deceased, especially if they have a Facebook, Twitter or other online account. Their identity is still as it was — their interests, photos and postings, the causes they support — they're all still online, even after they pass away.
"Technology works as a metaphor," says Adria. "We refer to it as the net, as channels, as a transmitter. So just as we use it to chat with the dead, the dead can end up talking as well."
And talk they do. There are dozens of famous dead people who don't just have Twitter accounts, but communicate through social media as if they were still alive.
The stand-in for a witty Queen Victoria tweets: "Let me make this clear, I do NOT require 38 ministers to advise me on the happenings of the Dominion." Dom Perignon (who always seems to be drinking) recently re-tweeted: "Prince Harry Gives 'Brilliant' Champagne Toast."
Edgar Allan Poe constantly offers words of wisdom and Charles Darwin, in his dull note-taking style, tweets a description of each leg of his trips.
But perhaps William Shakespeare sums it up best when he tweets: "All this is but a dream."
The late Marshall McLuhan (who incidentally has a Twitter and Facebook account) would no doubt agree with this otherworldly communication.
In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan argues that technology is an extension of the human body. And that when you use technology, you lose part of your body.
For instance, the telephone extends the voice but "amputates" the hand used to write correspondence. The computer extends so many parts of the body — brain, voice, hands — that we lose other natural abilities.
In effect, says Adria, we tweeters and tech users become disembodied — ghost-like.
So, perhaps, we're just as ghostly as the ghosts we communicate with. We have become more used to sending online messages into the ether than having face-to-face conversations.
Still, while I'm all for the Facebook tribute page, when it comes to commemorating the deceased, I'd rather make sure my message actually gets to the people most affected by the loss here on Earth.
That means writing my message by hand and sending it to the family.