The Facebook of Living and Dying

In the past couple of years, two of my closest friends, both in their twenties, have died. They were both people whom I saw on an almost daily basis, and both left behind various physical reminders of themselves scattered about my apartment: a length of prayer flags, articles of clothing, books, handwritten letters, photographs, a rusting bike still locked to my front porch. Sometimes I look to these things for comfort. Sometimes I’d rather not look at them at all.

As twenty-somethings, my friends were also part of the first generation to leave behind expansive digital footprints after death. If I want to, I can read all of our archived chats and emails. I can Google their names and find almost everything they authored or were featured in on the Internet. And, of course, I can visit their Facebook profiles.

Though all remainders of my friends are somewhat haunting, there’s something particularly unsettling about the digital ghosts that Facebook profiles become. After death, lists of activities and interests remain unchanged, along with any notes the users posted, hundreds of their photographs, and basic information like their hometown, their alma mater, and their birthday. Their profiles even list where they currently live (they do not list date or cause of death). In fact, if it weren’t for their walls, which become filled with posts of mourning and eulogy, it would seem as if nothing had happened to these people at all. Strangers who stumble upon the deceased’s profiles—blocked from seeing wall posts—would have no reason to believe they were not still alive and well. The Facebook system may even send automated reminders encouraging friends of the deceased to get in touch with them if they haven’t interacted in a while.

Again, sometimes I visit the profiles of my late friends looking for comfort—an old picture of the two of us, perhaps—but sometimes I can’t bring myself to look. I see their names pop up in my friends list and I click away. I have a dark, somewhat ridiculous suspicion that the crime I’ve always accused Facebook of perpetrating—reducing real, living, complex individuals into stark sets of easily-digestible data—is finally complete. Because the individual is dead, and the data remains indefinitely. Because, despite the individual’s absence, so many people continue to address this simulacrum in the second person, as if the person behind the screen is still checking their profile, or—more menacingly—as if the profile has finally replaced the person entirely.

There is no doubt: the Facebook wall has become a new, complex, and extremely relevant site of mourning; but many people feel off-put and perplexed by it. Zadie Smith writes in her critique of Facebook:

I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX

When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?

Smith brings up an important question: How does the quality of death change in a world of rapidly expanding virtual interaction?

As humans, we haven’t evolved very far past our chimp ancestors in terms of our neurological capacity to form strong interpersonal ties. Chimps usually travel in groups of six to ten, and identify with larger communities of about 40 to 60. If you’re a young person who lives in a city, chances are your social life reflects these numbers pretty well—a core group of six to ten roommates and close friends with whom you interact on an almost daily basis, and a larger community of 40 to 60 friends whom you can count on running into at larger social gatherings.

But, with social networking, cell phones, and email, the group of individuals with whom we maintain at least some very marginal amount of contact can easily number in the hundreds. And there’s something a little unsettling about this. There is a limit to the number of relationships in which we can truly invest ourselves. Virtual relationships, for obvious reasons, tend to be weaker than those based on frequent physical contact. Friends who we used to see on a regular basis in college have been reduced to intermittent online pals, and new friends have entered our core group. But these new friends, too, may be marginalized in the near future. We are constantly moving and meeting new people, taking summer jobs, spending time abroad, bouncing from city to city, returning to school, etc. We’d like to use virtual media to keep up with everyone we’ve met and loved, and we’d like to bring even more people into the fold with social networking, but at some point this is simply impossible. Managing the flux of one’s social circle can be frustrating, confusing, even heartbreaking.

This confusion is felt especially after a death. When someone in our core group passes away, their absence is physical, immediate, extremely real. When, at the open casket, I laid my hands on the almost unrecognizable body of a man whom I had seen alive and well not even a week prior—and with whom I had spent the last many months living and dreaming and laughing almost every single day—that loss was real. But when someone outside of our core group dies, we often realize, perhaps ashamedly, that there is something a little less real about it. And when someone dies who we’ve only known predominantly, or perhaps exclusively, in the virtual sphere, there may even be something—as Smith says—a little unreal about it. As we accumulate and maintain more and more weak relationships via virtual media, the character of death itself may become, on average, more virtual. It’s a disquieting thought.

And certainly, on average, Facebook is a space for the shallow and the superfluous. An abundance of shitty writing and obnoxious abbreviations—the kind Smith highlights—reinforces the belief many of us have that Facebook is a place for unintelligent interaction. Facebook walls are most often littered with posts linking to asinine Youtube videos, or hawking a show or a party (or a blog post). So when we see that this same space has been commandeered for mourning and eulogy—for something of the utmost severity—we feel uneasy.

But the kinds of posts I tend to see on my late friends’ walls don’t leave me with the impression that the reality of their deaths has somehow been misunderstood, that the gravity of the situation is lost to the people who eulogize them. Consider the impassioned posts from the grieving mother; the post from the younger brother, who, two years out, is now older than his brother ever was or will be; the posts of pictures from an annual vacation among friends that is now and forever will be one friend short; links to charities set up to honor the deceased; photos of prayer flags hung over his grave; the constant affirmations that he is still loved, still missed.

The Facebook wall may be open to an expansive set of virtual (and perhaps weakly connected) friends, and yes, once in a while an off-putting post will crop up. But the deceased’s wall is most often used, as far as I can tell, by close friends and family—and most often for sincere, heartfelt grieving and remembrance. Indeed, the mere fact that I am invested in the walls of the deceased being devoid of unappealing posts (as I think Smith implicitly is) seems to betray that I really do revere the wall as a legitimate space for mourning.

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s just the virtual aspect of mourning on Facebook that makes the practice so unsettling. Rather, it’s the fact that posting on the deceased’s wall is a very public display of grief—and that it most often takes the form of apostrophe: a direct, second-person appeal to someone or something that is absent (e.g. the deceased).

Apostrophe is a notoriously “embarrassing” (in the words of theorist Jonathan Culler) literary trope. It’s embarrassing, in part, because it seems to reveal to the reader that the text was composed for his benefit. Dialogue between two characters may easily reside within the world of the text, but when there is the “turning away” of apostrophe—an address to the absent—the fourth wall may begin to deteriorate, and the text may begin to reveal itself as a kind of performance for its audience. It’s not quite meta-fiction—a direct address to the reader—but it’s something like a first cousin to meta-fiction.

Something very similar is taking place on the Facebook walls of the deceased. Though there has always been some guise that the wall is a place for dialogue, it has also always been a place for public performance. When you post a message on your friend’s wall, you may (ostensibly) be directly addressing your friend—but you know full well that the post is available for wide public consumption. When the recipient is dead, however, whatever guise of dialogue there may have been is now gone; posting becomes an act of apostrophe, and something may seem awkward or gross about this act. It begs to be read as a performance for the public, and as such, at its worst, it may seem selfish and embarrassing. Something like: “Look at me, I’m grieving! I want to take ownership of this tragedy, to bear it publicly as something empowering and profound.”

We tend to consider our direct, second-person addresses to deceased loved ones—which most often take place at a graveside or during prayer—to be a private matter. But I seriously doubt when my friends died, many people sent them private messages on Facebook, or emailed them, or called their phones to leave messages. Posting on the wall of a late friend is a conscious decision to put what reads like a private message into a public space, to create a kind of permanent public annals of supposedly personal grieving. Of course, there’s nothing new about public grieving, and sometimes even a eulogy can seem selfish and embarrassing. But a eulogy is usually directed to the bereaved, and the deceased is most often referred to in the third person. “Let us remember our friend” is an invitation to grieve communally, to support one another; whereas “I remember you, friend” may seem like an attempt to own the grief in front of the community. Something about the second-person address, when it takes place in a public space, makes us feel embarrassed both to attempt it and to hear or read it.

I have never posted on either of my late friends’ walls—largely, I think, because of this sense of embarrassment. But it may also be because, in the face of their deaths, I’m simply at a loss for words.

There may be something embarrassing about apostrophe, but there can also be something heartbreaking and beautiful about it. Several months ago, David Brent wrote a post about Facebook for this blog. He remarked, “online social networking isn’t replacing human interaction; it’s attempting rather earnestly to fill a deep void in personal connections with a cruelly inadequate substitute.” I would qualify that the medium itself—or those behind producing it—aren’t necessarily attempting to do this; but many of the people using it are. Many users, with the utmost earnestness, go so far as to post public messages to deceased loved ones. And what void is more absolute than death? Under what circumstances are attempts at connection more cruelly inadequate?

This is the character of grief: confronting the impossibility of ever filling the void. Facebook is not the embrace of a friend, not a family with which to share your sorrow. But it is something.

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6 Responses to “The Facebook of Living and Dying”
  1. Amy says:

    Really interesting post. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about, too, since one of my best friends murdered his girlfriend my senior year of college, just two years ago. He’s still tagged in all of my photos, for example, and I haven’t quite figured out whether or not I’m bothered enough by the site of them to untag him. Of course, her page is there, too, and receives posts once a month, sometimes more. Worse than a page that remains unchanged, I remember each and every time I visit just how damage my friend did–how many lives he continues to influence. It’s difficult stuff, certainly.

    Thanks for this. Thought-provoking.

  2. Amy says:

    That’s embarrassing. By “site” I mean sight.

  3. Joe says:

    Wow… Bravo. Such an insightful look at a reality that so many of us face these days. Speaking for myself, I deal with these issues on a daily basis (I’ve also lost a brother) and so many times don’t know what to think either. Is it morbid to post hopeless messages of regret? or to go back and look at old postings of the deceased? or to try to find answers encoded in random messages, “likes”,”pokes”, and so forth. As put so elegantly and simply, these open ended sites are becoming, and have become for me, a vehicle to help me grieve and to carry alive the memories of my brother. Not to mention the reality of knowing that I am not alone, that others share the same grief; proven by the the thoughts, messages, and wishes of faith left behind on the site of one who has gone. Thanks for the great piece of writing.

    • Will Litton says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Joe. All of our thoughts are still with you and your family. Hope you are well. Expect some letters in the mail soon, and please do let us know if there’s anything else we can do.

  4. Ellis says:

    Maybe the facebook wall of the deceased is like a shrine on the side of the road where a car accident took place. Except instead of memorializing the spot of the tragedy and emphasizing the way the person left the world, facebook gives us a place to immortalize and celebrate the person’s life. As you wrote, their death is nowhere on the profile except on the wall.

    So yeah, while it is disquieting how digestible this personal summary is, it is – like you say – something.

  5. Tom says:

    I look at this from another angle – “good angle” as well.. If I died I would like to be remembered for some of the things I did with my friends.. Having a Facebook memorial with bits and pieces of my life, may also be a reminder to friends and viewers of the good times we had, and the accomplishments and failures of my lifetime. Otherwise I’m just a body in the ground that may once in a blue moon get visited. Everything I did or ideas I had lost forever.

    Pictures on my page may never be seen again except there. Pictures of me and my friends or pictures I took that no one else has a copy of. I have lost many friends, and finding an old picture, or even a picture I have never seen before of them is a great treasure to me. These are cherished little things that people sometimes need to make it through their lives after a loss. The same with comments, views, stories, and daily life events.

    You still have the rusty bike, and other mementos at your home, that shows you still want to remember bits of their life. Otherwise those things would have been donated or sold. Think of facebook as just another way to remember them and keep those memories intact and close when you do need to think about them or tell someone about them and things you did together. It’s a quick reference to those things.

    I wish I could see the facebook of my Grandmother, and see some pictures of her and her post, but she passed away long before facebook existed, and therefore I have no way to remember some of the things about her, recipes, and daily things that I have now lost forever.

    Great Thoughtful post though –

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