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The article outlines the issues that the internet presents to death studies. Part 1 describes a range of online practices that may affect dying, the funeral, grief and memorialization, inheritance and archaeology; it also summarizes the kinds of research that have been done in these fields. Part 2 argues that these new online practices have implications for, and may be illuminated by, key concepts in death studies: the sequestration (or separation from everyday life) of death and dying, disenfranchisement of grief, private grief, social death, illness and grief narratives, continuing bonds with the dead, and the presence of the dead in society. In particular, social network sites can bring dying and grieving out of both the private and public realms and into the everyday life of social networks beyond the immediate family, and provide an audience for once private communications with the dead.
University of Bath
University of Bath
University of Dundee
Goldsmiths College, University of London
Published in Omega: Journal of Death & Dying 2011-2012, 64(4): 275-302.
Corresponding author:
Tony Walter
Centre for Death & Society
University of Bath
The article outlines the issues that the internet presents to death studies. Part 1
describes a range of online practices that may affect dying, the funeral, grief and
memorialisation, inheritance and archaeology; it also summarises the kinds of
research that have been done in these fields. Part 2 argues that these new online
practices have implications for, and may be illuminated by, key concepts in death
studies: the sequestration (or separation from everyday life) of death and dying,
disenfranchisement of grief, private grief, social death, illness and grief narratives,
continuing bonds with the dead, and the presence of the dead in society. In particular,
social network sites can bring dying and grieving out of both the private and public
realms and into the everyday life of social networks beyond the immediate family,
and provide an audience for once private communications with the dead.
Keywords: dying, social death, bereavement, digital, internet, social networks,
Facebook, illness narratives, disenfranchised grief, community, inclusion,
Death is irreducibly physical, but it is also social. Getting frail or terminally ill and
then dying disrupts social networks; bereavement entails a restructuring of social
engagement, with both the living and the dead. The internet is also, and increasingly,
social, so much so that the term ‘social networks’ is nowadays as likely taken to
include online as well as offline networks. So it is reasonable to ask whether, and if so
how, the internet changes the experience of dying, and of grieving.
A second reason to ask this question derives from the need for information.
We die only once, so dying presents an entirely new situation for each individual who
faces it, and possibly also for their close kin. They have a lot to learn, and fast. Most
knowledge about dying, however, is tied up in the heads, textbooks and procedures of
health professionals, so the ordinary family faces, at the very least, urgent information
needs. The internet is fast replacing books (which in turn replaced orally transmitted
knowledge) as the main way in which modern people search for information, so we
may predict that the internet will be increasingly significant for dying people and their
carers, and especially those dying at home.
In this article, we examine a range of research literature about the internet in
relation to the whole span of mortality - from increasing frailty through death to
bereavement and eventual archaeology of what is left behind. The literature comes
from many disciplines and interdisciplinary fields, including death studies,
journalism, media studies, cultural studies, memory studies, computer mediated
communication, human computer interaction, sociology, psychology, medicine.
Though there are many studies of particular facets of death and the internet, often
focussing on one or two websites, no-one has reviewed overall how the internet may
affect dying and mourning. The literature relates primarily to advanced industrial
societies; this review is likewise restricted to these, mainly western, societies.
We suggest that if the social interactions of dying or grieving people change,
then the experience of dying or grieving may well change. Some of the studies
reviewed focus on interactions, some on experience, some on the relation between the
two. We argue that the evidence so far indicates that the internet has significant
implications for many current concepts in death studies; in turn these concepts
illuminate what is going on online. These concepts are: the sequestration (or hiding)
of death and dying, disenfranchisement of grief, private grief, social death, illness and
grief narratives, continuing bonds with the dead, and the presence of the dead in
society. Several of the implications of the internet for dying and grieving date from
the development in the 2000s of Web 2.0, which refers to the internet’s increased
interactivity and the ease with which non-experts can upload text, pictures and sound,
and continuously modify these collaboratively - illustrated by, but far from confined
to, the rapid development of social network sites (SNSs) (O'Reilly, 2010, boyd and
Ellison, 2008, Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). i
The article is in two parts. Part 1 is descriptive, looking at dying, funerals,
online memorialisation, digital assets and digital heritage, sketching some new
practices enabled by the internet and the kind of research that has been done on them.
Part 2 is analytical, asking how this research informs concepts within death studies,
grouping them within the overall headings of sequestration and social death. Because
the internet is increasingly social, our approach is predominantly sociological.
Methodologically, research in this field is done most easily by going online and
observing the sites in which dying people, their carers, and mourners participate.
Ethical concerns have been expressed about researchers entering password-protected
sites, and even in open group sites whose postings are public, participants may feel
these are private and are offended should a lurking researcher make his or her
presence known (Thomas, 1996). Some researchers, however, have interviewed site
members as well as looking at what they produce (Massimi & Baecker, 2010; Nager
& de Vries, 2004; Odom, Harper, Sellen, Kirk, & Banks, 2010; Roberts, 2004). We
may here compare research into graves and roadside shrines, where it is much easier
to observe and photograph their material culture than to find and interview their
creators or those who object to them; or media research where it is much easier to
analyse a media product than to observe the process of its production or audience
responses. Online, however, contributors to death-related sites often do write about
their reasons for contributing, so a certain amount about motives and responses can be
gleaned just by observing what is being written online.
There is very little research specifically about online practices in relation to dying
(compared, as will be seen later, with a lot about online memorialisation practices).
There are, however, areas of IT research – such as online health support groups (not
least for those with life threatening conditions), digital inclusion, and blogging –
which could be developed into productive research agendas illuminating the
contemporary experience of getting to the end of life.
Online support groups
Research into online social networks is indebted to Granovetter’s classic distinction
between strong (close) and weak (peripheral) ties, and Putnam’s related distinction
between bonding and bridging social capital. Strong ties bond a person to a few close
kin and friends, who are likely to be like oneself and hence provide emotional support
but few new ideas, perspectives or resources; weak ties create a bridge to a diverse
range of people offering a range of resources, which helps build social capital
(Granovetter, 1973; Putnam, 2000). In online health groups, do members seek weak
bridging ties as a source of information, or strong bonding ties with people like
themselves who may provide emotional support (Wright, Rains, & Banas, 2010)?
How does gender influence behaviour and expectations online (Seale, Charteris-
Black, & Ziebland, 2006)? Do those (often male) with instrumental approaches to
problem solving go online for information, while those with affective approaches
(often female) look online for emotional support? (Doka & Martin, 2010)
There has been considerable research on online support groups for people with
life threatening diseases, especially breast cancer (Hoey et al, 2008; Høybe, Johansen,
& Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, 2009), with varying findings as to their efficacy both in
providing social support and in influencing health outcomes (Johnson & Ambrose,
2006). Online support groups are easier to access, at any time, than face-to-face
groups; a cancer patient who has just heard from her doctor that her prognosis has
worsened does not have to wait for the next weekly meeting but can go online
immediately and receive messages of support (Wen et al, 2011). Night owls can
discuss their health concerns online at any hour. Rare diseases, with only a handful of
sufferers, can have online support groups comprising a very high proportion of all
sufferers, at least within the West.
People may also go online to find fellow sufferers not because their condition
is rare, but because it is stigmatised and/or they want a forum not dominated by
medical narratives. Examples include mental health users (at increased risk of dying
through suicide) and women with anorexia (at increased risk of dying through
starvation). More directly concerned with dying are assisted suicide websites in
jurisdictions where this remains illegal, and sites in which suicide is performed online.
Health professionals and relatives may be concerned about the risky behaviours
encouraged in sites not moderated by a health professional (Sofka, 2009), even in the
absence of clear evidence whether such sites actually increase or decrease the
likelihood of suicide, or of starvation. Meanwhile, users of these sites may value them
as a sanctuary from professional or family surveillance (Dias, 2003).
Digital inclusion
Most of those near the end of life are over 70, few of whom are online, and this is
particularly true in the UK of women over 70. Over the past few years, the UK and
US governments have been committed to digital inclusion, i.e. getting the whole
population online. That primarily means getting the elderly online (Age Concern &
Help the Aged, 2009; Dept for Communities and Local Government, 2008; Ofcom,
2009). The inclusion literature understands the role of social networks in developing
social capital, the influence of gender as well as age, and social exclusion.
The marriage of government and the IT industry that underlies this literature is
very optimistic, gung-ho even, about the potential benefits for the very old, i.e. those
approaching the end of life. Two questions, however, may be asked. First, might the
digital inclusion agenda actually increase social polarisation among the old, with
those already well connected (eg with computer literate grandchildren and
neighbours) being supported in their online endeavours, while those more socially
isolated give up at the first attempt? What is needed is not only elderly-friendly
technology, but for digitisation programmes to be community based, identifying who
in the older person’s existing networks might be readily on hand to help, and if there
is no one, for helpers to be provided within the local neighbourhood (or within a care
home). (Independent Age & Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2010)
Second, for those elderly and those nearing the end of life who do succeed in
going online, will this necessarily help them? Libertarians argue that digital inclusion
should mean not only everybody getting online, but also moving from commercial to
open source software; otherwise, getting the elderly online means getting this
comparatively poor section of the populace to buy expensive software from
multinationals such as Microsoft (Stevenson, 2009). The internet is particularly good
at mobilising weak ties, but there is some evidence that those at the end of life are
looking not to enhance social capital by extending their weak ties but to capitalise on
already existing strong ties (Wright, et al., 2010). One study of 63 – 86 year olds who
were already online found high resistance to joining Facebook (Gibson et al., 2010),
not least because of concerns about privacy; compared to young adults, they were
extremely reluctant to disclose personal information to online ‘friends’ who offline
would be mere acquaintances. Privacy settings need to reflect the various levels of
disclosure that humans desire with different groups of family, friends and
acquaintances (Stiller & Dunbar, 2007). Online, older adults seem much more
concerned with these distinctions than do young people.
At the very least, consideration needs to be given to what those toward the end
of their lives might wish to gain from the internet; it will almost certainly differ from
how younger generations use the internet (Sum et al, 2008). If other family members
use the internet to help them care for an elderly member at the end of life, does it
matter if the old person him or herself is not included in these online conversations? Is
this vicarious inclusion? Or exclusion? (In a later section, we consider a similar post-
mortem issue, namely when a web memorial is created and maintained by someone
other than the deceased’s next of kin.)
That there is little research on such matters (compared, for example, with
online groups for less than elderly cancer sufferers), reflects not only the lack of
digitally connected elderly, but also the lack of research into the social networks of
those who are dying. Even holistic palliative care that focuses on the dying person’s
family tends to ignore his or her social networks and the resources they can bring; the
hospice model is typically of a patient in a family relating to the health services, rather
than a person within a social network (of which health services form only a part)
(Bowra, 2010). Given this lack of clinical and research interest in patients’ social
networks, it is not surprising if this lack of interest extends to online networks.
Blogging and other practices
A number of people now write blogs about their experience of life threatening and
terminal illness. Whether, and if so how, these differ from pre-blogging print illness
autobiographies, or pathographies (Hawkins, 1990), has yet to be researched. Does
dying become less isolating when the dying person is either writing a blog or reading
the blog of another dying person? One might expect rather more raw immediacy from
the blogger, while readers’ experience of logging in daily to see how the blogger is
getting on seems different to reading a print autobiography after the person has died. ii
The ease with which photographs may be taken with mobile phones and then
uploaded to the internet means that pictures of the dying and dead in war zones are
now readily accessible to anyone (Whitty, 2010), the execution of Saddam Hussein
being the best known.
A possibility, which we have yet to see discussed in print, is to use digital
technologies for recording and accessing advance directives. This could be done
either via a dedicated website or by inserting a radio-frequency identification (RFID)
tag under the skin, and then require emergency and intensive care staff to check the
website or tag for instructions. (Tags are already used, for example for nightclub
Since the funeral is one of those rare occasions, for some people the only occasion,
when their various social networks gather together in one place, one might expect
online networks not to be so important at the funeral as at other times. There are,
however, a number of ways in which online facilities are becoming part of the funeral.
What follows relies on anecdotal observation and experience, for there is virtually no
academic research into how the internet is affecting the contemporary funeral.
In English speaking countries, and in some others, the funeral is becoming a
celebration of life (Co-operative Funeralcare, 2011; Garces-Foley & Holcomb, 2005).
Funeral celebrants increasingly use Facebook to understand the deceased’s character
and networks, and use email to check the wording of their eulogy with family
members. Although the personalised funeral (in the UK, from the late 1980s or early
1990s) predates the dominance of the internet, electronic communication certainly
facilitates its spread and its evolution into a co-production between family and
In the UK, it is now common for the funeral service sheet to have on its cover
a photograph of the deceased, often in good health shortly before they fell ill - as
mourners would like to remember them. Sitting looking at this picture, quietly before
the service begins, can in my experience be a moving experience, and one that focuses
the mind on what is about to happen. When the next of kin is elderly, the picture is
likely to have been sent electronically by one family member to another with the
knowledge and software to scan and edit photographs and create the cover sheet.
(This can be an example of a young person’s digital skills being used to include rather
than to exclude elderly members.) Likewise, wakes may include a PowerPoint loop of
photographs of the deceased over his or her lifetime.
Whereas early examples of this typically come from the family, the funeral
industry is now investing in digital technology. A few British crematoria have the
facility to display digital images during the service (rather than during the wake),
while rather more have the Wesley music system which can download almost any
music from the web. In the USA, some funeral homes have the deceased’s Facebook
site displayed on a screen.
The internet also enables virtual attendance at the funeral. Funerals may now
be streamed via the internet to those not present (Pitsillides, Katsikides, & Conreen,
2009). This can enable those who cannot be present physically to attend virtually, and
even to contribute virtually. It can also provide a ready excuse for those who do not
want to make the physical effort to attend. Thus, this facility can either enhance or
detract from the funeral (not unlike the way televising professional sports events can
both undermine attendances and increase global interest).
There are also online funerals and memorial ceremonies for those who have
only ever been known online, for example when a member of an online gaming
community physically dies. A 13 year old girl’s role in an online game was a fighter
pilot ace; when she died of leukemia, the other players enacted an online fly-past
(Haverinen, 2010). This raises the question of the girl’s offline mourners. Were they
aware of her online friends? If not, it seems that two totally separate rituals were
performed for her. Online and offline friends often overlap, but in online gaming this
is less likely. (It is also the case that co-players in face-to-face gaming, for example in
a chess club or football club, may not encounter a player’s other friends and family –
but they are all likely to meet at the funeral. This may be unlikely with online
Mourning and memorialisation
Online memorialising has been categorised in terms of grief-specific and non-grief-
specific sites (Sofka, 2009), and intentional and unintentional memorials (Haverinen,
2010). We use these categories to map the terrain of virtual memorialising.
Intentional memorialising in grief-specific sites
Since the 1990s, cyber-cemeteries have offered their services to mourners, the earlier
ones being considerably less interactive and participatory than more contemporary
ones (de Vries & Rutherford, 2004). Many of them use cemetery imagery, for
example clicking on a picture of cemetery gates into order to enter the site. As will be
discussed in Part 2, cyber-cemeteries are particularly popular with, and some are
exclusively for, specific types of loss that tend to be disenfranchised in face-to-face
relations, such as pet grief, grief following AIDS (Blando, Graves-Ferrick, & Goecke,
2004), and grief for celebrities (Hall & Reid, 2009).
In addition to cyber-cemeteries that, usually for a price, will memorialise
anyone, there are also memorial sites for ordinary people who died in specific
historical circumstances. Formal American examples include the virtual patchwork
quilts of AIDS victims [], the virtual memorial wall for
American soldiers who died in Vietnam [ ], and the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.
[] (Sade-Beke, 2004) – each of which, interestingly, is a spin-
off from a physical memorial. An Israeli example is the Yad Vashem site Many of these are highly political, as indeed are a
number of quite elaborate tribute sites set up by a family for just one individual,
including Shiri Nagari, ‘a proud Jewish Israeli young woman… murdered on
Tuesday, June 18th 2002 by a Palestinian suicide bomber on her way to work’, and Trooper Marc H. Niab, ‘A Hero you were,
and always will be….’, killed on duty in Afghanistan . Less political are many of the tribute sites set
up, often by old media such as newspapers, for famous people, such as singer Michael
Jackson or celebrity Jade Goody (Walter, 2011).
One type of website that intentionally commemorates the dead but does not
usually involve grief are genealogy and historical sites.
Intentional memorialising in non-grief-specific sites
As more and more people spend time interacting with each other online, physical
death is now being marked in all kinds of everyday online social network and gaming
sites. This occurs for two reasons. Either, a participant in an interactive site dies, and
the site then becomes a place in which its still living members commemorate the
deceased and share their feelings of loss. SNSs such as Facebook are now developing
policies on what to do with deceased members’ pages, whether they should be closed,
turned into memorial mode, archived, etc (Faure, 2009; Fletcher, 2009). Or, a living
participant in a SNS may wish to indicate his or her status as a mourner, for example
by adding an ‘RIP Granny’ flag to their page, or by adding a picture of a deceased
loved one, or linking to a memorial site. Some online groups have an increased
likelihood of members dying - of suicide in mental health groups (Hsiung, 2007), of
starvation in pro-Ana anorexia groups, of cancer in cancer groups (Wen, et al., 2011)
– so are likely to display memorialising and other grief-related postings. Even outside
of social network and gaming sites, death is acknowledged in other group websites.
My own university home page not infrequently announces the death of a retired staff
member, and infrequently of a current staff member or student, with information
about their life plus a funeral or memorial service announcement.
Unintentional memorials in non-grief-specific sites
Though a dead person’s material possessions are willed to specific recipients, or are
sold in the impersonal market (thus detaching the object from memory of the
deceased), a person’s digital works can hang around in cyberspace indefinitely. Just
because material is no longer visible on its original site does not mean it may not be
found by unknown others, pre- or post-mortem (Donath, 2004). Even material that has
been removed from the internet may have been downloaded by persons unknown and
thus persist on their computers. Cyberspace is thus full of deceased persons’ digital
bits (Pitsillides, et al., 2009). Though some of this digital material may become part of
a formal or informal online memorial, much may just float around in cyberspace, to
be accessed randomly by unknown surfers. This brings us to the final stage in online
mortality: digital assets, digital heritage, and digital immortality.
Digital assets and digital heritage
The question of the mortality or immortality of digital data is one discussed more by
computer scientists and media researchers than by thanatologists, though there are
exceptions (Aitken, 2009). Is digital data more or less mortal than the products of
previous communications technologies? Digital data certainly can be immortal. Once
online material is copied by others, the author cannot retrieve ownership; the material
may continue in cyberspace even if the original site is removed. Like a virus, once
someone else has it, they may pass it on to others without the author’s permission.
Whether, and to whom, it is accessible, especially in the long run, is another matter.
Paper, for example, is easily destroyed, but if it survives can still be read, even
centuries later. Digital data is less easily destroyed, but whether future generations
will be able to read it is less certain (Gibson, 2007; Jones, 2004). It is nevertheless
clear that archaeologists in future centuries will be searching digitally as well as
physically for traces of the twenty first century; and what they will find on the internet
will resemble what they find under the ground: mainly garbage, and graves
(Pitsillides, et al., 2009).
Returning from the distant future to the present, a number of questions may be
asked about control, power and privacy. At what point should a deceased person’s
Facebook site be closed, or what protocols should be followed for its memorialisation
(Walker, 2011)? If a deceased employee included personal messages in his work
email, will the employer allow family members access to these messages? Would the
deceased wish family members to read such emails? Did the deceased leave details of
passwords so that family members can access not only email and SNSs, but also
commercial sites and (for the self-employed) business accounts? Apart from
convenience and privacy, other questions about the distribution of digital assets within
families, both pre- and post-mortem, may be asked (Pahl, 1999).
It has been suggested that people should make digital as well as more
conventional wills, providing not only passwords but instructions as to what to do
with these assets (Walker, 2011). Digital technologies for archiving family material
for future generations are being developed (Kirk et al., 2010). There are also services
that scan a customer’s online activity routinely, and if this ceases for a specified
period, the customer is notified and asked if they are still alive; if after repeated
enquiries there is no response, then friends and websites can be notified. A number of
online providers are offering willing and death notification services, but take-up is
reportedly not as high as had been predicted; possibly mortality is beyond the horizon
for many members of the internet generation (Neild, 2011)?
Two studies, one Canadian and one British, have interviewed people about
their experiences of both material and digital inheritance. Digital hardware (laptops,
mobile phones) was more easily inherited than digital data, which often could not be
accessed or were destroyed. Because digital information, unlike paper diaries and
letters, is not clearly labelled, people often came across personal information when
they were not expecting it. And people could feel burdened by the volume of digital
data they had inherited. (Massimi & Baecker, 2010; Odom, et al., 2010)
A challenge to sequestration?
It has been argued that in modernity, the dying and dead are sequestrated – secluded
within special places such as hospitals, hospices and cemeteries - where they will not
disturb the everyday flow of modern life (Giddens, 1991; Mellor & Shilling, 1993).
And although bereaved people are expected in most modern societies to continue their
everyday activities, at least in Anglophone societies they are expected to keep their
grief to themselves, and without visible signs such as mourning dress their status as
mourners is hidden (Walter, 1999). Arguably this sequestration or hiding of death,
dying and grief continued with the online developments of the 1990s. Online support
groups for particular categories of ill, dying or grieving people (Seale, et al., 2006;
Sofka, 1997) replicate non-digital support groups in that they continue to keep death
and life threatening diseases such as cancer out of everyday public view; cancer
sufferers talk to each other in such groups, perhaps even reducing their need to talk to
people without cancer. And just as one has to choose to enter a physical cemetery, so
one normally chooses to enter a digital cemetery – though the ease of linking between
websites means that it is possible to chance into an online cemetery (Walker, 2007).
In the new millennium, specialist memorial sites have continued, but are now
greatly outnumbered (in terms of the number of people and connections made) by
general SNSs such as MySpace and Facebook. In these sites, pictures of the dead,
conversations with the dead, and mourners’ feelings can and do become part of the
everyday online world. A digital RIP on one’s Facebook indicates one is in mourning.
The dead and their mourners are no longer secluded from the rest of society. Though
the mass media have long brought death into the living room, audiences are unlikely
personally to know these media dead: politicians, celebrities, victims of murder and
disaster, and fictional characters (Hanusch, 2010). Web 2.0, however, has brought the
personally known dead and dying onto the computer screens, mobile phones and
iPads with which many people now spend more time than they do watching
On the face of it, this may seem similar to roadside and other spontaneous
shrines in public places which bring death and mourning out of the cemetery and into
the street (Santino, 2006; Walter, 2008a). These shrines divide public opinion
between those who contribute to them and value them, and those who consider that
death should remain within the clear walls of the cemetery and that it is indecent to
display grief in public (Petersson, 2010). But is there a difference between laying
flowers at a shrine in the street for anyone to see, and grieving on a Facebook site
where – depending on your privacy settings - your grief may be witnessed mainly by
others who knew, or at least had an interest in, the deceased? We will explore this
We will now look at some specific areas where it seems that the internet is
indeed bringing death, dying and mourning out of the protective box within which
modern society is considered to have located them.
Enfranchising narratives of illness and of grief
One of the main ways in which the dying have been separated from everyday life is
through the definition of their condition as primarily medical; even if they are not
hospitalised, their dying has become a medical matter. Even accounts by friends and
family of their condition are more likely to be in medical terms (‘her cancer has
spread to her lung’) rather than in social, familial or spiritual terms. Frank has written
about the possibility of medical narratives of illness being challenged by other kinds
of narratives (Frank, 1995), so the question arises whether the online environment
facilitates a wider range of accounts of illness and loss.
That online cemeteries are more likely to attract griefs (for pets, AIDS,
celebrities, etc) that are disenfranchised in face-to-face society (Doka, 1989) has been
noted by a number of researchers. The editor of a special journal issue on online grief
argues that many kinds of grief in modern America are disenfranchised and that the
internet provides a new place for mourners to find a voice (de Vries & Rutherford,
2004). A postscript to this collection wonders whether all grief becomes
disenfranchised after a while, since friends think ‘you should be over it by now’,
hence the demand for indefinite online memorialisation (Moss, 2004).
However, the case for automatic online enfranchisement can be overstated.
Sade-Beke’s Israeli study found that:
‘The departed commemorated in memorial sites usually have socially
legitimate and acceptable reasons for their death, such as automobile
accidents, terror attacks, incurable diseases, war, and the like; thus, there is no
problem posed by telling the story of their lives and deaths in public.
Accordingly, there are very few sites for people who died under controversial
circumstances surrounding their death, such as suicide, murder, drug overdose,
domestic violence and murder.’ (Sade-Beke, 2004)
Whether Israelis feel under more pressure than Americans to conform online, we do
not know. But this study does suggest that the ‘enfranchisement’ thesis may apply
only to certain societies, or to certain groups. Or it may apply only to certain sites. For
example, though serious and lasting grief for a pet may be totally accepted in pet
cemetery sites, it may not be on an ordinary Facebook site.
The thesis that the web provides an arena where socially problematic grief or
marginalised illness narratives may be more easily communicated is but one example
of a much bigger thesis, namely that the internet provides an unprecedented arena for
presenting alternative or marginal views and for resisting dominant media, political
and medical cultures (Atton, 2002; Lievrouw, 2011). This thesis is vigorously debated
within cybersociology. Within undemocratic societies, the evidence is mixed. The
Egyptian revolution of 2011 was facilitated by Facebook, though more traditional
media such as the Al Jazeera news network were also significant. In China certain
websites are blocked, and some apparently free blogs have been flooded by
undeclared state-sponsored contributors, so the internet can enable more effective
state manipulation of popular opinion. Within democratic societies, the evidence is
also mixed. One study of American political blogs found that they do not in fact
provide alternative views to mainstream political journalism (Kenix, 2009), whereas
another (Meraz, 2009) finds the evidence more complex. In the area of health, there is
similar variation. Studies of pro-anorexia sites clearly demonstrate online alternatives
to medical narratives, providing a sanctuary for women who feel their feelings about
their body are not understood by others (Dias, 2003; Miah & Rich, 2008), even to the
extent of sites being closed down because more powerful lobbies consider them
dangerous. A study of the most popular British websites for breast and prostate
cancer, however, found they replicated popular gendered discourse about how men
and women cope with cancer (Seale, 2005b), and as with political blogs, there is
much interchange between internet sites and old media (Seale, 2005a). And just as
face-to-face cancer support groups vary as to the extent to which they enforce a group
norm (such as ‘be positive’) or provide a free space for any expression (Helgeson et
al, 2000), it would be surprising if online groups did not also vary.
So what about memorial sites? Do they enfranchise not only the expression of
grief, or of certain kinds of loss, but also the expression of feelings and experiences
that may not be expressed elsewhere? An American study of a bulletin board for
bereaved parents (Musambira, Hastings, & Hoover, 2006-7) found that online there
was some evidence of non-normatively gendered expressions. In a Dutch study of
mothers whose child had died around birth, half the mothers interviewed belonged to
an online group, Lieve Engeltjes (Dear Angels); they found support there, which they
often did not find with family or partners, suggesting their feelings were accepted
online. This supports the enfranchisement thesis. However, half those interviewed did
not belong to this group, for good reasons, not least because they felt that the group
ethos that only a bereaved mother can understand a bereaved mother would further
distance them from partners – this suggests that the online group had developed its
own ‘party line’ and was not a free space in which any view could be expressed
(Peelen, 2011). This replicates the split opinion about face-to-face mutual help
bereavement groups (Walter, 1999).
If one reason that grief is disenfranchised is that the type of loss is not
recognised, another is that the griever is not recognised, because of very young or old
age, or complex communication needs. Bereaved children and teenagers, who are
nowadays ‘digital natives’, are adept at using social network sites, not least in the very
early hours and days after the death (Sofka, 2009). The internet may not so easily be
adopted by other disenfranchised groups.
The jury is still out on whether cyberspace provides a free area, in this case for
the expression of griefs that are stigmatised elsewhere, or by mourners who are
stigmatised elsewhere. It may well vary by site, by moderator, by topic, by country,
by age, and by individual.
Grief: from private to public?
In many modern societies, mourners are not expected to display their grief (Jalland,
2010), though since the latter years of the twentieth century there have been moves
toward more public expression of grief (Walter, 2008a). Of course, feelings of grief
and even heartfelt addressing of the deceased, were expressed in old media, such as
grave inscriptions and local newspaper In Memoriam columns. However, talking to
the dead at physical cemeteries tends to be in silence if there are others around, and in
highly stylised form in In Memoriam columns. Online, however, the bereft’s
conversations with their dead are there for all to witness.
If the intimately bereaved can be more public online, what about their
audience? Though mourning for someone you never met (for example, your boss’s
mother) is normative in Japan and Ireland, it is not in many other modern societies,
expressed for example in the criticism that Princess Diana’s mourners should not have
been grieving someone they never met. iii But online, mourning those you never met
has become common practice, and such messages of condolence and support are often
(but not always, see below) appreciated by the intimately bereaved. Thus online
memorials provide sites where both the bereft and their well-wishers can express their
feelings, with twenty first century sites much more likely than twentieth century sites
to allow for well-wishers (or indeed, see below, detractors) to post their feelings. The
bereft may connect with others, previously unknown, who have suffered a similar loss
(Roberts, 2004). Grief has become more public.
Depending on their privacy settings, however, many SNS pages are open not
to any surfing member of the public, but to a definable online community. So a
related question is whether grief online is becoming more communal? Few humans in
history have been able, or wanted, to publicise their grief to the whole world, but
many have found themselves grieving within their community; though radically
undermined by modernity, this social practice may be resurfacing online. We now
consider this possibility.
Grief: from private to communal?
Before the twentieth century (and still today in very poor countries) the most common
death was of a child, leaving behind a house in mourning: the main mourners were co-
resident, so grief – however personal and emotional - was also a shared group
experience. (That does not necessarily mean it was a good experience.) Through the
twentieth century in industrialised societies, the most common death has become that
of an old person, often leaving behind a widow or widower living on their own and
adult children who have long since left home and moved town or even country, so the
main mourners are not co-resident. Moreover, because of the division of home and
work, and indeed of leisure activities, mourners daily interact with people who never
knew the deceased. People’s social networks are fragmented, in death as in life: those
in my network A may know few if any of those in my other networks B, C, or D. In
these conditions, grief has come to be defined as a private experience, which others
can "support" but rarely share (Walter, 1996).
Pre-modern societies tended to produce a bereaved community, modern
societies tend to produce bereaved individuals, and post-modern mutual help groups
(online or offline) produce a community of the bereaved, that is, connections with
previously unknown others who have suffered the same category of loss - the death of
a spouse, of a child, of a relative by suicide, etc (Furedi, 2004; Walter, 1999). SNSs
such as Facebook, however, can produce what pre-modernity did: a bereaved
community. This is because SNSs provide an arena in which all a person's friends,
colleagues and family members can interact, or at least know of each other's
existence. This continues even if a person dies, or is bereaved. A person’s diverse
mourners may not be co-resident, but on Facebook many of them may be co-present.
The person’s social networks are thus de-fragmented, and mourning re-emerges as a
group experience (Brubaker & Hayes, 2011; Kasket, 2009). That said, integration of a
person’s networks at death may be more or less partial: online networks may be
segregated by age, while some people have different Facebook accounts, each
intended for a different social network.
This is part of a much bigger issue in cybersociology, namely whether the
internet produces social isolation or enhances community. Twenty years ago, it was
argued that the internet provided a ‘third place’ outside of home and work where
people could meet, compensating for the decline in community (Oldenburg, 1991;
Rheingold, 2000). This was challenged by an experimental study of the first year or
two online of 73 American households in the late 1990s, which found that internet use
decreased interaction with both family and others (Robert Kraut et al., 1998), though
a three-year follow up came to a more optimistic conclusion (Robert Kraut et al.,
A number of studies have found increased disclosure online, instances where
the psychological sense of community is greater than in face-to-face groups, and
examples of various types of support (including tangible support) offered by online
group members to each other (Roberts, 2004). A recent national representative Pew
survey (Hampton, Sessions, Ja Her, & Rainie, 2009) argued that ‘Americans now
have fewer people with whom they discuss important matters, and the diversity of
people with whom they discuss these issues has declined’ (p.55), but those who used
the internet and mobile phones were bucking this trend. Digital technology, they
argue, is part of the solution, not the problem. The limited evidence so far of
mourning within SNSs supports this.
A study of paid obituary pages in major US newspapers found that the online
guestbook ‘reveals interesting connections between strangers or people who knew the
deceased only in passing…These neighbors, in-laws, distant cousins, childhood pals,
co-workers, and mail carriers provide colorful stories and describe noteworthy and
admirable attributes of the deceased that grieving families might not include.’ (Hume
& Bressers, 2009-10, p. 267). The guestbook brings together disparate individuals
who comprise many modern people’s fragmented social networks. Online these more
distant mourners widen the circle of mourning, demonstrating the potential both of
weak ties and of the internet to generate a richer and more diverse community of
In funerals where mourners do not know each other, or do not know each
other well, there can be a tangible sense of temporary community, but as with
liminoid communitas in other settings, such as an adventure holiday (Turner, 1974),
this is unlikely to last. Interactive online memorialisation, however, has the potential
to enable the funeral community to continue once mourners have dispersed. For
example, Pamela Roberts created a web memorial after her best friend died. This
enabled friends who would otherwise only have met at the funeral to carry on talking;
Roberts felt no need to make the site public by linking to other sites. Its role in turning
the temporary funeral community into a more enduring one was sufficient (Roberts,
2004, pp.73-4).
New offline mourning practices, such as writing in public condolence books
and leaving flowers and messages in public places (Brennan, 2008), turned mourning
into a more public practice, but those who subsequently read your condolence
message or looked at your flowers do not know you; they are members of the public.
The innovation of interactive social media is that grief is re-emerging as a communal
activity, within existing social networks.
Control and conflict
As in more traditional settings, the existence of community does not mean the absence
of conflict. If the internet allows a free space for the expression of otherwise
disenfranchised feelings and views, it is by no means guaranteed that these deviant
narratives will always find a welcome. Not everyone approves of certain life
threatening behaviours and certain griefs being paraded online.
First, there is the question of who creates and controls a memorial site? is a site to which deceased people’s MySpace profile may be
uploaded. The consent of family and friends, however, is not required, and there are
instances of them being shocked to find there a family member’s profile, under the
site’s skull logo (Ryan, 2008; Sofka, 2009). The content of some memorial postings
may disturb some other people, for example expressions of religiosity for one who did
not believe, or the expression of materialistic values (Ryan, 2008). It is precisely the
internet’s fostering of diverse weak ties that can cause individuals in memorial sites to
encounter values or language that disturb them. Specifically, different people grieve
in different ways, which before the internet often caused problems within families and
among close friends (Nadeau, 1998), but now diverse grief reactions can be displayed
online to a much wider social network of friends and acquaintances, so one would
predict an increase in felt disturbance at how others deal with grief. And if offline
there have always been etiquettes for expressing condolences, what kinds of
condolence netiquettes are emerging, and with what degree of consensus?
Second, just as there is the possibility of defacing physical graves, so with
online memorials. An internet troll who stalks memorial sites and RIP sites on
Facebook defacing them with pictures and crude comments explained: ‘Public grief
and grief tourism are extremely obnoxious, selfish habits that so many people on
Facebook exhibit. In many cases, these memorial pages are set up by people who
hardly even knew the deceased.’ (Jackson, 2010) This objection is similar to that
against spontaneous shrines on public streets (Petersson, 2010; Walter, 2008a): grief
may authentically be displayed only for those you know, and mourning should not be
allowed to leak into the everyday life of passers by. In other words, death should be
sequestrated, for the protection of both the dead and the living.
Of course, such trolls do not protect contributors to memorial sites from abuse
or incongruity. MySpace and other open access memorials are easily subject to spam
robots promoting pornography or diet pills, which pop up in between the heartfelt
messages of friends (Ryan, 2008). Temporary excursions to a link outside the
memorial site may generate more spam. Sequestration works both ways (Petersson,
2010), protecting not only everyday life from the fear of death and the pain of grief,
but also mourners from the profanities and mundanities of everyday life. Internet
memorial users are not necessarily protected from these. Internet memorials may be
compared to television disaster reporting, an incongruous ‘rubbish sandwich in which
solemn announcements about the disaster and garment-rending calls for grief alternate
with trivial quiz shows, banal soap operas (or) advertising jingles in a commercial
break’ (Davies, 1999, p.256). Not everyone approves of death and everyday banality
being mixed together, whether on television or in cyberspace.
My discussion of sequestration has examined online relations between the
living and the living. The next section continues this, but soon moves to examining
online relationships between the living and the dead.
Social death
Social death refers to the withering and eventual extinction of social identity and
social interaction. It may begin long before death, with old age (Cumming & Henry,
1961), chronic illness (Bury, 1982), institutionalisation (Goffman, 1961), dementia
(Sweeting & Gilhooly, 1997); it may start with widowhood (Mulkay & Ernst, 1991)
or it may not occur till long after death (Klass, Silverman, & Nickman, 1996). How
might digitisation hasten or slow the dying of interaction and identity? What events
can trigger an elderly person either going offline (transfer to a nursing home or
hospital, a stroke?), or for the first time being persuaded to go online (becoming
housebound, bereavement?) (Age Concern & Help the Aged, 2009). How do hospital
and nursing home policies about computers and mobile phones promote or undermine
patients’ or residents’ social interactions? Will a bedtop computer help keep me
socially alive, so that social death comes when I can no longer e-mail or blog? Or
does social death only eventually occur when nobody accesses my website any more,
or my Facebook is closed down, i.e. when my digital connections have withered
(Pitsillides, 2010)?
Continuing bonds
Online, the dead continue as social actors. A consistent finding in research on online
memorials is that they express continuing bonds with the dead (Moss, 2004). To what
extent this finding reflects online more than offline memorialising, or simply reflects
continuing bonds as a current fashion in bereavement research (Klass, et al., 1996), is
difficult to say; certainly you do not need a computer to maintain a continuing bond
with the dead. Online messages are frequently addressed to the dead (Hastings,
Hoover, & Musambira, 2005; Roberts & Lourdes, 1999-2000), but this also is
common offline.
But something does occur that is perhaps not so easily found offline: a sense
that online the dead are listening (Kasket, 2009). 'The inclusion of updates in some of
the letters …. assumes an active listener who keeps up with the day-to-day comings
and goings of the living’ (de Vries & Rutherford, 2004) p.21. A Scandinavian mother
wrote: ‘I think of you all the time and wish that I could telephone you and hear your
voice. Now I’ll send this email up to heaven instead and hope that it reaches you. If
you want anything, my dearest boy, I’ll be sitting here at my computer for a while
every day.’ (Gustavsson, 2010)
Why do messages in cyberspace seem to reach the dead when the telephone
cannot? When addressing the living, there is co-presence (Short, Williams, &
Christie, 1976) online than face-to-face or on the telephone. But one of the curious
features of SNSs, unlike most emails and all letters, phone calls and face-to-face
conversations, is that a reply is not necessarily expected; communicating to a
deceased person online is thus no different from communicating to a living addressee
(Ryan, 2008). In sites, such as MySpace or Facebook, set up pre-mortem by the
deceased, there may be an uncanny sense of their presence. To put it another way,
'The Net is a metaphysical space that mimics our metphysical experience of the dead
as being neither here nor there but somehow everywhere yet nowhere in particular.'
(Gibson, 2007)
The Copernican revolution may have eroded the plausibility of heaven being
up there in the sky, but the digital revolution enables a plausible geography of the
dead residing in cyberspace. Posting a Facebook message to the dead and posting a
Facebook message to cyberspace feel just the same. If once the dead were once in
heaven 'up there', now they reside in cyberspace. Significantly, online references to
the dead as angels or in the company of angels are frequent (Gustavsson, 2010;
Keane, 2009; Walter, 2011); twenty first century mourners sit at their computers
addressing angels. This is not absurd. Angels are messengers, travelling from heaven
to earth and back, and cyberspace is an unseen medium for the transfer of messages
through unseen realms, so there may well be a resonance between how some people
imagine online messaging and how they imagine angels.
Of course, people talk to the dead offline, and receive advice from them
(Marwit & Klass, 1995), not least in cemeteries (Francis, Kellaher, & Neophytou,
2005). What is new about Web 2.0 conversations with the dead is that they are not
private, there is no embarrassment about speaking to the dead in the presence of an
audience, nor about speaking in a way that presumes the dead are listening. It may be
that writing online feels private, almost like a confessional, yet there is in fact a wider
audience. This is not to say that everyone welcomes the dead’s online presence, which
can ‘elicit confusion and discomfort in those who would prefer to bury their dead’
(Ryan, 2008)
Objects of the dead
The past two decades have witnessed growing interest - both in the academy and in
the museum - in material culture, and this has been reflected in the past decade in a
number of academic studies of how mourners interact with material objects
representing the deceased (Gibson, 2008; Hallam & Hockey, 2000; Hallam, Hockey,
& Howarth, 1999; Hockey, Komaromy, & Woodthorpe, 2010). The question now
arises of the how mourners give meaning to, and interact with, digital objects
representing the deceased. How do mourners relate to digital remains, and how does
this relate to how they relate to material connections with the dead? (Massimi &
Baecker, 2010; Odom, et al., 2010)
Online memorialisation is possible because of the ease with which non-experts
can now upload not only text, but also photographs and music. Photographs are taken
precisely in order to remember people and events, so there is perhaps always a degree
of intentional memorialisation in photographic web material. Almost all memorial
sites contain a picture of the deceased, sometimes hundreds, and possibly of their
funeral. For some visitors, these pictures can represent the deceased better than words.
As one mourner wrote ‘Damn B! Itz takin me so long to even click onto ur page kuz
of all the tears that wanna come out from just puttin the curser on ur pic.’ (Ryan,
2008) Pregnancy loss memorial sites typically have two prominent kinds of image -
idealised images of toddler-age angels, and ultrasound scans and photos of dead
stillbirths – and through these images, mothers construct the dead foetus as real and
therefore worth mourning (Keane, 2009). If these images make real what society
ignores, in other sites photos are used to celebrate what society deems sick or
mutilated – for example in pro-anorexia sites the photographed body validates, for site
members, the beauty and legitimacy of the anorexic body (Miah & Rich, 2008).
The presence of the dead in society
Over many centuries, developments in communications technologies and media have
radically expanded the presence of the dead within society (Walter, 2008b). In many
tribal societies the ancestors play an important role, but these are a relatively small -
and often only male - number of forebears within the extended family, whose deeds
and character are disseminated orally down the generations, with an ongoing culling
from family storytelling and memory of those in between the recent dead who are
personally known and group ancestors who are communally known (Humphrey,
1979). The development of printing and literacy radically changed this. It effectively
created history, in which any literate person can become acquainted with past people
who have influenced contemporary life and culture - cultural ‘ancestors’ way beyond
a person's own extended family. World religions, especially religions of the book, rely
on literacy for their founders’ and prophets’ continuing influence. In the twentieth
century the photograph added another communication technology, enabling the dead
to continue to exist in material form indefinitely and reminding everyone of the
passing of time and of their mortal nature (Barthes, 1982; Beloff, 2007).
This argument modifies the sequestration of death thesis: though the dying and
the emotions of grief may be secluded in modernity from everyday view, the dead
themselves are not. There is a long history of new communication technologies giving
the dead more, not less, social presence. Twenty first century SNSs are expanding that
presence yet further. We think of a girl whose mother died when she was not yet two;
when she was 12 or 13 she placed at the top of her MySpace site photographs of
herself and her dad, with witty captions, and a photo of her mother with the caption
‘Though I can’t remember you Mum, I’ll always love you.’ Her online networks,
which in her case coincide closely with her offline networks of school and other
friends, thus have at their centre her dead mother – a presence that is not overstated,
but just there, something impossible before the MySpace era.
The web has developed as a new milieu de mémoire, with the potential to
democratise memory. Until modernity, memory was constructed by ordinary people,
typically through ephemeral forms such as parades, performances, and temporary
interventions, but these have been largely replaced by official archival memory, as
found, for example, in the museum. So we find in the late twentieth century both
historical amnesia, and a memory boom (Nora, 1989). The internet, however, is
vernacular, interactive and participatory, like pre-modern memory. In the twenty first
century, official memorials and museums are now trying to engage with unofficial
memory (the prototype being the archiving of all objects left at the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial), ‘but their capacity to share memory work with ordinary people pales in
comparison with digital memorials and archives' (Haskins, 2007) p.405.
How the internet affects how we die and grieve depends on how interactions online
relate to interactions offine, and how both affect the experience of those who are
dying, caring, mourning, or remembering. In the research reviewed, the relation
between interaction and experience has not always been clear. Nevertheless, in this
paper we have shown how the internet affects key concepts in death studies -
sequestration, disenfranchisement, illness narratives, private grief, social death,
continuing bonds with the dead, and the presence of the dead in society. The internet
changes, or at least has the capacity to change, the way we die and mourn, certainly
interactionally, and possibly experientially. While recognising the trap of hailing each
new communications technology as humankind’s new saviour, we conclude that there
are two significant changes or potential changes that the internet can make to dying
and grieving.
First, twenty first century media have the capacity to desequester the dying,
death and mourning of personally known individuals. SNSs bring death back into
everyday life – from both the private and the public sphere - in a way that older media
such as television and even virtual cemeteries were largely unable to. If late twentieth
century mass media enabled grief to become more public (to the dismay of some
members of the public), twenty first century Facebook enables grief to become more
communal, i.e. shared within the deceased’s social networks – something very
Second, if social dying is the decay of social interaction and identity, digital
technology – including the internet – provides considerable potential for keeping
social interaction and identity alive. We should not be overoptimistic about the
current generation of the very old going online, nor of future generations of the very
old embracing as yet unknown communications innovations. But after physical death,
for mourners who are digitally connected, cyberspace provides a remarkable new
medium for conversing with the dead, enabling their ongoing presence to be as much
social as private.
But the internet is a rapidly changing medium, affording radical new
possibilities almost yearly, so thanatologists will have a hard time keeping up with
developments. Research findings in this field date quickly. Nevertheless, a number of
agendas for the future may be outlined. Research thanatologists need to analyse what
has happened so far, as we have tried to do in this paper, though most studies will be
more detailed and focussed than the present overview. Clinical thanatologists will
wish to keep up to date with how the internet can assist both their clients and
themselves as professionals (Sanders, 2011; Sofka, 1997). And computer scientists
will be designing new technologies for assisting the dying, their carers, mourners and
future historians, and evaluating their use. As death radically affects social interaction,
we suggest two research agendas on which both thanatologists and computer
scientists could co-operate.
First, more work needs to be done on the potential of SNSs to return dying and
grieving to a meaningful network of intimates, friends and well wishers. A number of
SNS provide (a very limited number of) privacy settings that enable users to
determine who may and who may not view their pages. Do these settings coincide
with the ways in which people actually categorise their more intimate or more diverse
networks? If not (Gibson, et al., 2010), there are limits to updates on a dying person’s
health, or memories of the deceased, being shared within a meaningful community,
rather than to a disparate audience of close intimates and possibly unknown ‘friends
of friends’. How may more sophisticated sites be developed that respect privacy, as
understood by old as well as young, sharing information and feelings to appropriate,
rather than inappropriate, networks (Moncur, 2010)?
Second, what is the role of the internet in social network disruption and repair
before and after death? How can information technology assist the maintenance of
social interaction –for the dying, for their carers and friends, and for the bereaved?
The internet may not, except in unusual circumstances, affect physical death, but it
can profoundly and routinely impact the process of social death – both before and
after physical death.
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i Following boyd & Ellison (2008), we use the term social network site, rather than social networking site. Most SNSs
articulate existing networks, making latent ties visible, rather than create new ones; relatively few people use them to
meet strangers.
ii Some newspapers, however, have serialised print pathographies during the dying person’s life (Walter, 2010).
iii The exception is when mourning concerns war and the nation: it is okay for Americans to mourn 9/11 victims not
personally known to them, or for Britons to mourn their war dead.
... The use of cyberspace to accommodate digital practices of interaction with death dates back to the 1990s [10]. In its early forms, people used the Internet to establish digital cemeteries and memorial websites [11]. The internet allowed new forms of engagement with death and proposed the promise of digital immortality. ...
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We examined the role that death anxiety (for self and others) and motivation for digital immortality played in the associations that narcissistic personality traits had with the desire for digital avatars (of self and others) in a sample of Israeli community members (N = 1041). We distinguished between four forms of narcissism: extraverted narcissism (characterized by assertive self-enhancement), antagonistic narcissism (characterized by defensiveness and hostility), neurotic narcissism (characterized by emotional distress), and communal narcissism (characterized by attempts to emphasize superiority over others by exaggerating communal characteristics such as being extraordinarily helpful). Our sequential parallel mediation analyses showed that narcissistic personality traits were associated with fear of death and the desire for symbolic immortality (having a digital avatar for self and others), with mainly indirect associations via fear of death and the motivation for eternal life and to be there for others. Discussion is focused on the role that fear of death and specific “defensive control” motives for having digital avatars (e.g., motivation for eternal life and to be there for others) may play in the desire for digital immortality reported by individuals with narcissistic personality traits.
... In their study of digital remains, Gray and Coulton (2013) remark that "as an immaterial and immanent form, the dead can effectively, but not formally, exist" (p.37), thus we find them in acts of recall and in a "broader range of connections between the senses, agencies, memory and history that is enmeshed through our emotional and aesthetic experiences" (p.37). Social media is also part of the landscape where these emotional and esthetic experiences occur (Walter et al., 2012;Brubaker et al., 2013;Gotved, 2014;Refslund Christensen and Sandvik, 2015). ...
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The paper proposes “technological haunting” as a concept in migration and transnational death studies. Existing theory and empirical work in media studies explore connections between new media and grieving practices and how affordances of co-presence and portability shape how people maintain bonds with the deceased. The unique considerations that “technological haunting” brings to the study of transnational families and death still need to be addressed by both media scholars and researchers within digital migration studies.
With the rapid development of digital technology in recent years, virtual funerals and the reproduction of deceased persons in digital spaces have become possible. However, few empirical studies have been conducted on this topic. This study assessed the attitudes of bereaved people toward digital bonds with their deceased relatives, and explored related factors. A survey was administered to bereaved, middle-aged Japanese citizens who had lost a first-degree relative within the previous 10 years. The results showed that most respondents did not seek digital bonds, but nearly 20% wanted to be reunited with their deceased in a digital space. The desire to maintain digital bonds was significantly related to other variables, such as the deceased's age and years since their death. Regression analysis revealed that the desire for digital bonds predicted complicated grief 5 months later. The findings suggest that digital bonds may influence post-bereavement maladjustment.
Վերջին տասնամյակներում թվային տեխնոլոգիաներն աստիճանաբար ավելի ու ավելի շատ տեղ են զբաղեցնում մարդկանց կյանքում, և մարդու գործունեության տարբեր ոլորտները ցանցից դուրս/անցանց տարածությունից տեղափոխվում են առցանց ։ Ժամանակակից աշխարհում մահը նույնպես առցանց տիրույթի մաս է կազմում, և մասնավորապես շատ են ուսումնասիրությունները, որոնք քննարկում են մահվան առցանց ծեսերը և դիսկուրսները, որոնք գերազանցապես առնչվում են հիշատակին, սուգ և վիշտ արտահայտելուն ։ Հայկական (նկատի ունենք ֆեյսբուքյան այն տիրույթը, որտեղ մարդիկ կատարում են հայատառ կամ լատինատառ հայալեզու գրառումներ) ֆեյսբուքում նույնպես կարելի է հանդիպել բազմաթիվ նմանատիպ գրառումների, որոնք դեռևս չեն հետազոտվել ։ Սույն աշխատանքի նպատակն է՝ կիրառելով հիմնավորված տեսության մեթոդը՝ վեր հանել հայկական ֆեյսբուքում առկա սգի և վշտի պրակտիկաները, դրանց առանձնահատկություններն ու տարբերությունները՝ հիմնականում անգլիալեզու սոցիալական ցանցերի ուսումնասիրությունների ու դրանց հիման վրա մշակված տեսական մոտեցումների համեմատությամբ: The development of digital technologies and online platforms entailed many changes and shifts in people’s lives. Many elements of culture once belonged exclusively to the offline sphere, started to appear online as well. One of those phenomena is death. Now we can find numerous sites devoted to death, grieving, and loss. Death even “invaded” social networks, where it is actively discussed, in particular from the perspective of grief and bereavement. In the Armenian language Facebook, one can find a lot of posts related to death, most of which can be categorized as grieving posts. First, Facebook serves as a new means to spread the news about death and upcoming funerals. It also helps people to continue their relations with deceased relatives. Many people talk to them directly in their posts, and it leaves the impression that the dead person can see or read the massage. Users can even tag the dead person and make his/her profile more apparent and accessible for the griever’s social network. Generally, grieving on Facebook is more interactive and intensive: one can post pictures, and videos of the deceased person, write some memories, or express some emotions related to his/her loss and receive comments from friends on Facebook. Многие изменения и перемены в жизни. Многие элементы культуры и быта, которые раньше принадлежали исключительно к офлайн-среде, теперь появляются и онлайн-пространстве. Одним из таких является смерть. В наши дни мы можем найти в интернете большое количество сайтов, связанных со смертью, скорбью и потерей родного человека. Смерть даже ворвалась в социальные сети, где она активно обсуждается в основном в перспективе скорби и тяжёлой утраты. В армяноязычном Фейсбуке мы можем встретить много статусов про смерть, большинство из которых можно отнести к статусам скорби. Фейсбук служит новым способом распространения новости о смерти и информации про грядущие похороны. Он также помогает людям продолжать отношения с их умершими родственниками. Многие пользователи общаются с умершими близкими напрямую через статусы, и складывается впечатле- ние, что покойный может увидеть или прочитать сообщение.
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The study aims to analyze the posts related to death on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Thus, the study examines the gravity of death among the social media users and the impact of digital narcissism on the aesthetics of death. The theoretical framework for this study is based on Christopher Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism, which provides insights into the influence of web 2.0, particularly the digital platforms that are used to post death related contents. The study utilizes a summative content analysis approach, focusing on selected statuses and corresponding comments on Facebook and Twitter that pertain to death. The findings of the summative content analysis suggest that Facebook and Twitter have been poorly managed, leading to mistreatment of human values and attitudes towards death. For instance, insensitive comments on the death-related posts indicate a form of abuse within these digital platforms. Additionally, the study highlights the growing use of emojis in expressing grief and mourning on the Web 2.0 platforms. The study concludes that the rise of Web 2.0 such as social media platforms has led to a shallow and often disrespectful portrayal of death, ultimately diminishing its intrinsic beauty and significance.
Rituals are indispensable activities in the history of human development to express values and connotations and are characterized by repeatability and regularity. Funeral rituals are not only a way to cherish the memory of the loved ones we lost, but also a channel for living relatives to maintain connections and deepen emotional bonds. The research, based on Collins’ interaction ritual chain theory and combined with the design scheme of “remember me”, aims to propose approaches and factors for interactive memorial rituals to exert the function of emotional connection and bereavement grief relief under the background of deepening digitization. It also studies the design of virtual service products for future digital memorial modes and the funeral industry amidst the normalization of COVID-19, cultural globalization, metaverse, and other technological developments.KeywordsInteraction Ritual ChainFuture DesignVirtual RealityCultureFuneral Ritual
In digital culture and its global economy, images circulate transnationally and shape cultural ideas about social and existential issues. While there is growing interest in death online, few studies have investigated the role of visual material in different forms of communication in this field. In this article, we examine the depiction of dying and death in stock photographs tagged with "palliative care" drawing on an image corpus of 618 photographs. Stock photographs are images produced for commercial purposes that are stored in databases by agencies on the Internet. To analyze how these representations depict fictional palliative care settings, we used visual grounded theory. The findings show that typical caregivers are portrayed as emphatic individuals, while patients appear as composed human beings facing death without fear. We argue that the images represent aspects of the modern hospice philosophy and the cultural narrative of healthy aging.
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The practice of grieving from a socio-cultural perspective is never an impersonal matter. The attachment to different organized values and habits prevents the individual from determining the attitudes and emotions that must be shown when grieving. This fact raises the question of the place of traditional mourning practices in society amidst the invasion of new technologies, i.e. social media. The study uses qualitative methods to analyze some Instagram content related to mourning the loss of several public figures in Indonesia. In the case studies examined, the contribution of big technology gives us autonomy, but it is only a phantasmagorical one. Ultimately, our identities will continue to control what we do in cyberspace and in the natural world. Social media is only an alternative space for the manifestation of correlated socio-cultural values, including the implementation of norms in mourning. Nevertheless, the freshness offered in the practice of mourning on social media is that people can now immerse themselves in a longer liminal period and preserve the communication and social status of the deceased with the available function of perpetual mourning. The results of the study should stimulate further research on how technology can shape society in the digital age.
Persons who have lost a loved one by death are increasingly searching for support from online peer groups to process their grief. One approach involves sharing photographs with peers online. The purpose of this study was to assess the impact of a four-week internet-based photography therapy intervention concerning participants’ grief reactions using the Hogan Grief Reaction Checklist (HGRC). Another aim was to assess the role of the moderator and describe development targets in the internet-based photography therapy group based on the participants’ experiences. The participants were individuals who had lost a loved one divided into an intervention group (n = 101) and a comparison group (n = 55). The changes in the dimensions of grief of the intervention group members were slightly greater than in the comparison group. The dimension of panic behaviour declined statistically significantly more in the intervention than in the comparison group during the follow-up period. While the participants from the intervention group valued the expertise of the moderator, the moderator’s role could have been more visible. The participants also wished that the therapeutic photography group would have included more active involvement. Additionally, the participants made suggestions on modifying intervention content and developing a platform better suited for sharing photographs.
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The importance of older adults' social networks in providing practical, emotional and informational support is well documented. In this paper, we reflect on the personal social networks of older adults, and the shortcomings of existing online Social Networking Sites (SNSs) in supporting their needs. We report findings from ethnographic interviews, focus groups and hands-on demonstrations with older adults, where we find key themes affecting adoption of SNSs. We then consider design aspects that should be taken into account for future SNSs, if they are to meet the preferences of older users.
This new study maps and synthesizes existing research on the ways in which journalism deals with death. Folker Hanusch provides a historical overview of death in the news, looks at the conditions of production, content and reception, and also analyzes emerging trends in the representation of death online.
Spontaneous shrines have emerged, both in the United States and internationally, as a primary way to mourn those who have died a sudden or shocking death, and to acknowledge the circumstances of the deaths. The Mourning Wall at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing; the so-called flower revolution in Great Britain after the death of Princess Diana; “Ground Zero” in New York after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as roadside crosses that mark the site of automobile fatalities and memorial walls painted for victims of urban violence are all dramatic examples of public mourning.
The internet provides new ways of forming social relationships among people with breast cancer and is increasingly used for this purpose. This qualitative study, using ethnographic case-study method, aimed to explore how support groups on the internet can break the social isolation that follows cancer and chronic pain, by analysing the storytelling emerging on the Scandinavian Breast Cancer Mailing list. Using participant observation and face-to-face or online interviews of participants, we investigated the motivations of 15 women who chose the internet to counteract social isolation after breast cancer. The results showed that the women were empowered by the exchanges of knowledge and experience within the support group. The internet was considered a means for finding ways of living with breast cancer. Our study suggests that internet support groups have important potential for the rehabilitation of cancer patients.