Social networks are transforming the way we mourn our dead

Topics Facebook

The other day I got a Facebook reminder about a former colleague’s birthday. This is not unusual, of course. The birthdays of those with whom I am connected on FB pop up daily on my notifications. But this time Facebook was reminding me about the birthday of someone who passed away a few years ago. He was a popular and much loved person and he went too soon, succumbing to a dread disease that ravaged him with ferocious speed. I went to his Facebook wall and found that his many friends and colleagues had posted messages in his memory, reminiscing about him, saying how much they missed him, and, yes, even wishing him a happy birthday. 

It was a moment to pause and think of him, which I did. It was a moment to celebrate his memory, look at his laughing pictures, and virtually gather around his loved ones who were still grieving his untimely death. It may have been slightly distressing to get a deceased person’s birthday notification, but you knew that the fond messages of remembrance that poured in that day were probably a great comfort to his family.

Social networks and the internet are, in fact, transforming the way we remember and mourn our dead. This is because in the virtual world, death need not make you extinct. The masses of digital data that you generate throughout your life — your pictures, posts, tweets, blogs — can remain intact in the folds of the internet. They can be memorialised, digitally archived, and available to those who knew you and loved you. Today, every deceased person can have their virtual Graceland, their very own digital shrine, which friends and followers may visit and the bereaved may turn to for solace.

This is very different from the letters, photographs and odd bits of memorabilia that one used to remember the dead by in an earlier era. While those lay in obscurity, away from the public eye, the digital afterlife of a person exists in the community. It is accessible to the community and can spark conversations and reminiscences that are probably of great value to those who are trying to come to terms with the void of a loved one’s death. Perhaps the sight of the person’s continued online presence offers some sort of a consolation for the grief over their absence from the physical world. Perhaps, in a very small way, the permanence of their digital life is something to hold on to in the face of the terrifying impermanence that took them away. 

Of all the social networking platforms, Facebook is best suited for memorialising a deceased person’s virtual personality. It is, in fact, strewn with the digital tombstones of users who have passed on. Earlier this year, the Oxford Internet Institute published a report which said that based on 2018 data, even if no new users joined Facebook, its dead members could outnumber the living by 2070 and their number could be as high as 1.4 billion by 2100. And if FB were to grow at the current rate of 13 per cent per year globally, the number of deceased users could touch 4.9 billion by the turn of the century.

Social media sites have policies in place to deal with their burgeoning population of the dead. (An estimated 8000 FB users die every day.) Legal heirs or authorised persons can have the social media accounts of the deceased deleted, and in the case of Facebook, memorialised. People are also becoming aware that their will and testament should include instructions on how to dispose of their online footprint, their digital estate, as it were. It’s good to decide in advance whether your digital remains should be obliterated or preserved. Leaving it to your heirs might result in your profile forever haunting a social media site — something you may not have intended.  

Every culture has customs and rituals to mourn the dead and bring closure to the grief over the loss of a loved one. And there’s no harm if, in the global culture of the internet, a Facebook wall becomes an extended wake for the dead. But does it bring closure? Does it help in healing and letting go? Perhaps we should ask ourselves those questions before we proceed to digitally embalm a person who is no more.

Shuma Raha is a journalist and author based in Delhi @ShumaRaha

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