Life After Death in the Land of Social Media

Recently, my friend tragically passed away from cancer at the age of 24. We weren’t exceptionally close, but her genuine kindness stood out in the two summers we worked together at an amusement park. Since we both ended up moving afterward, we used Facebook to keep in touch. If it weren’t for the social media site, we might have otherwise lost contact.

News of her death broke when mutual friends began to post status updates to the effect of “R.I.P.” and “miss you…” Thanks to Facebook, it was only a matter of hours before a friend provided the details on what happened. Without the Facebook connection, it could have been weeks, months or even years before I learned that she passed away.

What happened in the following days, however, became slightly disturbing: people began posting on her Facebook profile. Comments and photos sprang up in my News Feed, which prompted the question… is this wrong? 

On the one hand, it’s awesome that social media could allow someone to live on — long after their physical presence is gone. Sites like MyDeathSpace.com post the profiles of those who have died tragically and serve as a forum for people to discuss their feelings in a constructive manner. Using the site, people can express outrage or sadness and find support from others in the same situation.

Facebook allows friends and family to “memorialize” the profile of someone who has passed away. This takes a very sensitive approach to the person’s passing by removing them from the “Suggestions” area, where Facebook reminds you to contact people. Additionally, it eliminates sensitive data like status updates and contact information, as well as setting the privacy so that only confirmed friends can locate the profile.

If my friend’s profile becomes memorialized, it could serve in essence, as a digital memorial to her life. For people who could not attend her funeral, it would also offer an outlet for their grief. Despite these very positive ways that social media is striving to help people deal with death, there’s a dark side to this too.

When people started posting to my friend’s profile, it created a great deal of notice. However, this attention was for the people posting. Instead of being about her, it seemed to become more about “look at me! Look at what I’m saying or doing. I really care about her because I post on her Facebook!”

We live in a world where the Internet breaks down the distance between us. When we learn of someone’s passing, we can quickly arrange for flowers or a card to be sent with a few clicks. Even if we’re unsure of where the services are held, some quick Google searching will yield the results. The most respectful way of honoring that person in the days immediately after their death is a physical one, either by attending their services or sending a tangible reminder of what they meant to you.

Once people have had time to grieve, it’s more appropriate to post tribute on Facebook. It gently reminds others around you to think of that person without shifting the focus to you. While Facebook and other sites are doing a pretty good job handling death in a respectful manner, we as people may need some time to develop a tactful approach to death in the land of social media.

What are your thoughts on how death should be handled in social media? Is it right to immediately post on a dead person’s Facebook? Or do you favor a more tangible approach? 

Image credit: openDemocracy

Evan Crean During the day, I'm that guy you're on the phone with for computer help, but by night I'm an entertainment journalist. My work is fueled by a rabid obsession with film trivia and popular culture of the 1970s and 1980s. Even if you don't agree with me on one of my articles, I'd love to hear your side of things, since I never turn down a spirited debate. Twitter: @reelrecon

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