ArticlePDF Available

Communication as travel: The genre of letters to the dead in public media



The phenomenon of personally addressing the dead through letters published in public media is a prevalent communicative practice that has earned little academic notice. This practice disrupts some common communication principles and provides us with new understandings of how communication works – by travelling, rather than reaching an end. To encapsulate and characterize this phenomenon, this article focuses on an Israeli case study of letters written to the dead and published in popular newspapers. I use a media ecology approach to phenomenologically classify five sets of characteristics in order to stimulate future discussion and analysis.
EME 18 (1+2) pp. 23–42 Intellect Limited 2019
Explorations in Media Ecology
Volume 18 Numbers 1 & 2
© 2019 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/eme.18.1-2.23_1 23
The phenomenon of personally addressing the dead through letters published in
public media is a prevalent communicative practice that has earned little academic
notice. This practice disrupts some common communication principles and
provides us with new understandings of how communication works – by travel-
ling, rather than reaching an end. To encapsulate and characterize this phenom-
enon, this article focuses on an Israeli case study of letters written to the dead and
published in popular newspapers. I use a media ecology approach to phenomeno-
logically classify five sets of characteristics in order to stimulate future discussion
and analysis.
Messages addressing the dead are all around us. People leave notes on or in
tombs, talk to the dead (even in front of strangers) at funerals and memorials,
send letters to dead people’s former addresses,1 publish heartbreaking letters
in books and newspapers and post messages on dead friends’ Facebook pages.
Though distinct from one another, many of these texts utilize similar mediated
1. A special initiative
takes place in Poland,
where people send
letters to Henio
Żytomirski, a Jewish
boy from Lublin who
was murdered by the
Nazis in Majdanek
concentration camp,
probably in November
1942. The letters are
sent by the post
office or have been
hand-delivered to his
written technologies
Israeli culture
Colorado State University
Communication as travel: The
genre of letters to the dead in
public media
Explorations in Media Ecology
© 2019 Intellect Ltd
Carolin Aronis
24 Explorations in Media Ecology
practices in and through public settings, often reflecting and reinforcing some
unorthodox media/communicative practices. While some practices for contact-
ing the dead, such as Spiritualist séances, have been thoroughly analysed
(e.g. Gitelman 1999; Natale 2016; Peters 1999; Sconce 2000; Sword 2002), the
fascinating communicative practice of addressing the dead through published
words, without expecting the recipient to respond, is rarely acknowledged in
communications scholarship. My purpose in this article is to define letters-to-
the-dead as a genre in order to open a new area for exploration and to invite
readers to consider a new perspective on how communication and media work.
Building on earlier work (Aronis 2017), I use the letters written to the dead
in popular Israeli newspapers as a case study, as they present a broad range of
ideas in a public/mass medium and are, therefore, rich ground for future anal-
ysis. I also draw analogies to similar communicative practices, such as notes
to the American victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on memorial sites and
in books, notes posted on dead users’ Facebook pages and eulogies in popu-
lar music. Overall, these phenomena entice us to re-examine some founda-
tional communicative practices in order to characterize this overlooked genre,
especially in terms of how messages travel, how relationships between inter-
personal and mass media are reconstructed, how texts become public, how
addressors and addressees are established and how to understand the practice
of communication with no clear end.
Following the practice of earlier phenomenological studies, this article
classifies, defines, typologizes and describes the phenomenon in order to
explain its communicative occurrence and its organizing tools.2 I use a media
ecology approach, which facilitates this task by‘studying media as environ-
ments’ through an exploration of ‘their structure, content, and impact on
people’ (Postman quoted in Strate 2017: 5) and with the aim of unweaving
the media’s work (Strate 2017). The communicative constellation of technolo-
gies (e.g. letters, newspapers and the written word) and of addressors and
addressees (e.g. the actual writer, journalists, the dead and the‘passers-by’
readers and listeners) and the practice of reaching out to the living and dead
audiences are all embedded in our understanding of how this phenomenon is
constituted and practised.
In the following sections, I organize my observations around five themes
that could be used or adapted to analyse other cases of letters to the dead in
the future: (1) routes and travel, (2) an apparatus of two or more media, (3) in/
direct addressors and addressees, (4) public and private communicative prac-
tices and (5) non-living addressees and substitute readers. To conclude the
article, I sketch a model of a non-linear and winding communicative practice,
which will lay the groundwork for later initiatives exploring its rhetoric, its
therapeutic practice, its expression of grief, its commemorative function and
its function within journalistic writing. Specifically, this article concludes that
writing to the dead is an attempt to reach nowhere and everywhere, to consti-
tute a sense of hope and to communicate by‘travelling’ rather than by reach-
ing a known and intended end.
(Mis)Communicating with the dead
Death is the realm of the unknown, if it is a realm at all. When people whose
existence and presence we used to experience die, they disappear from life as
we know it. The belief that living humans can communicate with the dead
relies on the assumption, often tied to religious beliefs, that the dead still exist
alleged mailbox, which
functions as a public
2. For similar works
that classify, define,
typologize and/
or describe the
occurrence of a
phenomenon before
its actual analysis, see
for instance Merton
(1946), Horton and Wohl
([1956] 1979), Thompson
(1995), Tomlinson (1999)
and Peters (1999).
Communication as travel 25
in some sense and in some realm, allowing at least a certain type of commu-
nication. In many cultures and religions, the dead are thought to have super-
natural or holy abilities (e.g. changing the destinies of living people, solving
problems and protecting the living). In ancient Egypt, for instance, people wrote
letters to their dead relatives to ask for help with their problems (University
College London 2002a, 2002b). Prayers to the dead, by which living believers
could‘support’ dead friends and relatives, were common in Christianity by the
fourth century ce, along with masses for the dead (Kastenbaum 2001). Similar
rituals appeared in Aztec cultures in Central Mexico.
Influenced by the invention of electronic media like the telegraph and
the radio,3 the nineteenth-century Spiritualist movement gained considera-
ble ground in North America and the United Kingdom. Through séances and
prayers, usually held by human ‘mediums’ who served as channels of commu-
nication, the dead were addressed and believed to send messages back to the
living (Emmons 2009; Kastenbaum 2001; Natale 2016). Séances were often
based on letters and words, while human‘mediums’ also channelled texts from
the dead through‘automatic writing’, having the dead allegedly write through
them (Natale 2016). Sconce argues that Spiritualism, along with the later practice
of‘identifying’ the dead’s spirits in radio waves and television broadcasts, relied
on the perception that electronic media could abolish great distances, even the
distance between life and death. Telegraphy, and later radio and television, were
thought to enable the ‘ethereal “presence” of communications without bodies’
(2000: 10), giving voice to‘invisible entities’ (2000: 10), including the dead.
Unlike these earlier phenomena, in the texts examined here the dead do
not‘perform’ or‘exist’ in any way through or in the medium/media. They do
not leave ethereal evidence of their presence in noises, images or voices; they
are not seen in crystal balls or envisioned; and they do not send messages to
the living world. In fact, the letters neither assert nor deny that the dead exist
in a different realm or that they can be summoned or spoken to. Instead, they
are simply addressed through words, usually written ones, in letters, notes,
poems and songs. They are not expected to respond, even to personal letters,
and any ‘presence’ of the addressee is not captured but represented. This
brings back the sense of‘old’ written media and thematic emphases on death,
distance, gaps, separation (i.e. being‘cut off’) and delays (Aronis 2017; Kittler
1999; Ong 1977, 1982; Peters 1999).
Letters and notes to the dead in the public media
Unlike eulogies and obituaries which are about the dead, and many times are
read aloud at funerals or memorial services, these letters are written to an
absent addressee. The readers (and sometimes listeners) are exposed to them
by the public media, usually in silence and separated from the writer. In recent
years, web memorials have included letters addressing the dead in the second
person (Roberts 2004), as well as Facebook posts on a dead friend’s or rela-
tive’s page to commemorate his or her birthday or some other anniversary.
Similar published writings include The Legacy Letters, a collection of letters to
the victims of the 9/11 attacks (Curtis 2011). Handwritten notes also appear at
the Ground Zero memorial and 9/11 memorial under Union Square in New
York, just as they did outside Toronto’s City Hall when New Democratic Party
leader Jack Layton died suddenly in 2011 (Ferenc 2016). Popular songs also
often address the dead, as in Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ (addressed
to Princess Diana; John and Taupin 1997), Eric Clapton’s‘Tears in Heaven’
3. Technology and science
were transforming
western society by
the middle of the
nineteenth century,
creating a mindset
that anything is
possible, including
developing devices
to communicate with
the dead (Kastenbaum
Carolin Aronis
26 Explorations in Media Ecology
(addressed to his late 6-year-old son; Clapton and Jennings 1992) and Amit
Farkash’s‘A Million Stars’ (addressed to her brother, an Israeli pilot who died
in the Second Lebanon War; Farkash and Kerzner 2005). Along similar lines,
Natan Yonatan’s poem ‘Each Day I Return’, addressed to his son who died
in the Yom Kippur War, has been read at many Memorial Day ceremonies in
Israel (1995).
This article’s primary dataset includes dozens of letters written to rela-
tives and friends who died in tragic national events in Israel; the letters have
been published in popular Israeli newspapers since the late 1990s (espe-
cially since 2010) and focus on death and loss among the Jewish population.4
Located either in the first few pages of the newspaper – alongside typical
journalistic reports, articles and opinion pieces – or in special sections, they
have become common journalistic artefacts for tragic national events like
wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, public health crises and military acci-
dents. Many times their publication coincides with Yom Hazikaron, the official
Israeli Memorial Days for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism (see Aronis
2017). The letters, usually written by ordinary people, describe deep emotions
of longing and emptiness, stories of coping and remembrance and updates
since the person’s death. They use second-person address and present tense,
exposing to the public eye an intimate relationship between the writer and
addressee. They end with a personal closing, and sometimes include promises
to and requests from the dead.
Sample letters published in Israeli newspapers
The following excerpts offer a representative sample of the data analysed:
A bereaved mother wrote to her baby who died after ingesting faulty baby
formula in the midst of what later became known as the Remedia Affair:
My Avishai,
Only two months ago you were born. A healthy, perfect and beautiful baby. I
carried you in my womb for nine months, you became an inseparable part of
my life and my soul. How I waited for your arrival. […]
When you were three weeks old, my darling baby, you gave me your first
smile, so innocent and trusting. And we couldn’t protect you. […]
Thank you for the wonderful moments you gave me.
Now you are at the side of our Father in heaven, in a world of good, after
you were murdered by irresponsible people who have no regard for the value
of human life and who carried out their duties with negligence. May your
memory be blessed, look after us from above, we could not do that here, my
Avishai, a Remedia victim.
I will love you forever,
Mommy Michal
(Ziser 2003: 1, original emphasis)
A widow wrote to her husband 37 years after she lost him in a terror event:
There almost isn’t a day that I don’t speak with you. But to write? This I did
for the first time only two years ago, upon reaching thirty-five years from that
night when my world collapsed. Since then I haven’t written you a letter. […]
4. By‘Jewish’ I mean the
population of Jews in
Israel, not necessarily
religious adherents.
Religious minorities
in Israel, such as Arabs
or Muslims, are not
directly connected to
this phenomenon.
Communication as travel 27
5. This is from a well-
known Israeli song,
based on an eastern
European melody,
about a child who is
afraid of the dark.
The time of your absence is deceiving. Going forward and backward, and you
hover over it. Your young daughter is already a mother, four of your grand-
children – soldiers. Two of them are officers. I consistently share with you
my pride in them. […]I’m writing you fragments of thoughts worded care-
fully and with the language you knew. And the truth is – nobody puts effort
into writing letters any more. There are [Facebook] posts and e-mails and text
messages and people settle issues without getting into details or sentimental-
ity. And maybe that is easier than unloading everything that has accumulated
into the black frame. Dalia
(Yairi 2012: 6, original emphasis)
A newspaper reporter wrote to the police officer Ahuva Tomer, who died in
the Carmel wildfire (in Hebrew, Ahuva also means‘beloved’):
A few minutes after I received the message that you were not with
us anymore, I found myself pressing the 5 key on my cell phone. The
shortcut to you, Ahuva. […]
Yesterday I said goodbye to you, Ahuva, together with thousands that
loved you so much. I wrote your commander’s farewell speech in my
notebook, and the pages got wet with tears. Rest in peace. I hope you
knew that I loved you. I will cherish you in my heart forever.
(El-Chai 2010: 9, original emphasis)
A bereaved mother wrote to her two sons who she lost in battle. The younger
died twelve years after the older. During that time she also lost her husband:
Uriel and Eliraz, the joy of my life and the grief of my heart.
I’m sorry, my beloved children, I’m sorry that I’m here, continuing without
Life holds me tight, sticking to me firmly and not loosening its grip.
I don’t know why. Why me? And after all, I am a mother like all the mothers
– that hope for the success of their children, their health, and for the safekeep-
ing of their souls.
Just like all the anxious, worried and hurting mothers.
Forgive me Uriel, my firstborn, this year I will not stand on Memorial Day in
front of your grave.
For 12 years I have done it, half of them with Dad by my side, together with
Eliraz who would salute you and silently shout: my brother, my beloved!
You probably already know, Eliraz – your brother that you loved so much, that
you admired, that you called‘a cannon’ and you always told me that he is
better than you – Eliraz your brother has joined you.
This year I will stand next to him, because he needs me. He is new in your
burial plot (cemetery), so he needs to get used to the darkness, to the dirt.
And I, your mom, will forever continue to hear your voices coming out of your
little cradle, your grave. I will continue hearing the song that you loved before
bedtime:‘All the light has long ago gone, don’t you suddenly also go, come
mommy, come mommy, sit with me until I grow up’.5
Hugging, kissing, loving and continuing,
(Peretz 2010: 14, original emphasis)
Carolin Aronis
28 Explorations in Media Ecology
6. For Strate’s (2017)
explanation in
regard to‘Tools’,
see especially‘9.2.
Studying Media as
Media’ (2017: 214–16),
and‘9.5. Studying
Environments’ (2017:
These moving letters reflect the wearisome culture of death in Israeli (and
Jewish) culture nurtured by wars, terrorism and other tragic events. However,
like the letters written to the 9/11 victims and the musical tributes mentioned
above, they also feature a personal, authentic and even poetic voice address-
ing a person who is not there to read it. The Israeli texts are framed interper-
sonally, as old-fashioned letters or notes, but are embedded within a public
frame, accessible to a public of countless strangers.
Analytical practice
I used a media ecology approach to phenomenologically examine this
communication environment as a system, aiming to identify its signifi-
cant characteristics, its relationship with internal components and its rela-
tionships with other systems. This analysis pays special attention to what
Postman called transactions or transacting systems (Strate 2017). I examined
a core group of 72 letters to the dead published in Israeli printed newspa-
pers between 1997 and 2014 (see Aronis 2017), comparing them to examples
in similar genres. Following Strate’s (2017) emphases on‘Studying Media as
Media’ and‘Studying Environments’, I focused on the operative, functional,
modal and material aspects of the media involved: letters, newspapers and the
practices of writing and reading. I analysed the specific characteristics relat-
ing to their‘physical form or materialities’ (2017: 214), including portability,
transmission/dissemination, reach, direction, structure and mode of address,
as well as characteristics of their symbolic forms, such as their rhetoric and
mythological images. I also examined the practice and process of mediation:
the interactions between media, between addressors and addressees and
between the technological and symbolic environments.6 This analysis revealed
five elemental characteristics of letters to the dead in public media.
Routes and travel
First, these letters exhibit certain movements within the system of media
communication. I would like to offer the idea of routes, travel, paths and direc-
tions as the first characteristic of the phenomenon. Looking first at traditional
letters, in practice, they are objects or artefacts that travel through space and/
or time to reach certain addressees. The actual practice of transportation and
travel provides us with the initial observation of the letters’ trajectories and
allows us to‘map’ the phenomenon by seeing communication as transpor-
tation or movement through time and space (Innis [1951] 1999; McLuhan
[1964] 1999; Tomlinson 1999; Urry 2000, 2002). In Understanding Media: The
Extensions of Man, McLuhan ([1964] 1999) devoted a chapter to roads and
paper routes, discussing the material movement and travel infrastructure of
messages. He explained that the term‘communication’ had tight and vast
relations to roads, bridges, sea routes, rivers and canals; communication
only became transformed into an‘information movement’ in the electric age
([1964] 1999: 89; see also Craig 2013; Urry 2000). In that chapter, McLuhan
asserted that he was concerned ‘with all forms of transport of goods and
information, both as metaphor and exchange’ ([1964] 1999: 90). While in
practice he focused on the speeding-up of information, I would like to focus
here on the practice of transportation itself, since in this phenomenon, speed
is less important than the routes themselves and their actual possibility of
moving towards the dead.
Communication as travel 29
Letters to the dead are characterized by deviation from the normative
trajectories of letters, as they do not follow the known travel ‘behaviour’ of
letters. Traditional letters emerge in the practice of having one’s emotions
and thoughts brought up/out by ink and the technology of writing on paper.
Writing a letter underscores that the addressee is absent from the writ-
er’s space and/or time at the moment of writing, so that the addressee will
receive the letter with a certain pastness, as the letter will be read some time
after its actual writing (Ong 1982; Milne 2010). These gaps in space and time
(i.e. distance) are inherent to this communicative process, and they are an
expected part of writing a personal letter and sending it. Typically, these letters
are sealed for privacy, transported via mail carriers and vehicles and deliv-
ered (hopefully safe and sound) to a particular mailbox in a distant place. The
expectation is that the addressee will open the envelope, read the letter and
touch those remnants from the writer – the paper, the handwriting, maybe the
writer’s smell – will read the words that were written in the past, in a distant
place, and will engage in practices of interpretation of the text. The reader’s
fingers will touch the paper, maybe their tears or food will dirty it, and maybe
they will even write back.
Letters to the dead in the popular press, on the other hand, have no extant
addressees to receive the letter and no real/clear addresses either. Where
should such letters be sent, and to whom? They have no material end in the
communication trajectory. Some writings to the dead are kept in the writ-
er’s desk drawer, while others are placed next to tombs. But in this case, the
letters left the writers’ desk to move towards the wider world. To get there,
they did not use the post office or mail trucks: they were probably typed on
a computer and e-mailed to a journalist or newspaper editor, on their way to
being published in the public medium of the newspaper. Thus, they are‘deliv-
ered’ to one who has no address, yet at the same time delivered to countless
others – the unknown newspaper readers. The newspaper seems to serve as
a postal carrier for the letters to the dead, but at the same time it coerces its
readers into eavesdropping on the letter, to spy on the intimate words, form-
ing multiple surrogate addressees (Aronis 2017). Despite these differences, the
letter to the dead genre still evokes the materiality of a traditional letter and
its transportation. Both letters move through space and time, as readers asso-
ciate the mythological concept of a letter (see Barthes [1972] 2001) with the
successful (if illusory) practice of receiving and reading it.
Urry (2000), in a book chapter entitled‘Travelings’, seeks to observe the
geographical travel and mobilities of people and objects, to offer an under-
standing of media through the concepts of imaginative and virtual travels.
While his media analysis has a limited relationship to the geographical travels
of people and objects, I would like to suggest looking at letters as objects that
travel through space, leaving their place of creation and being separated from
their creators to travel, alone, to a new dwelling.7 In the first part of the chap-
ter, he deals with the travel of people (or‘corporeal travel’, as he defines it),
seeing the urban setting as a place to construct certain walking patterns. By
analogy, letters also‘walk’ within the system of communication, usually with a
certain trajectory of movement. But letters to the dead are closer to wandering
flâneurs: they have no destination and must wander through‘risky environ-
ments that enhance the possibilities of getting lost’ (Urry 2000: 55).
Peters (1999) studied the United States Postal Service’s‘dead letter office’,
the actual department established in 1825 where numerous letters with
7. Urry (2000) develops
the travelling object
concept following Lury
(1997), who identified
three kinds of mobile
objects: traveller-
objects, tripper-objects
and tourist-objects.
Carolin Aronis
30 Explorations in Media Ecology
mistaken or problematic addresses have ended up. There, they were opened
and read by the office staff, with the intent of helping the letter on its way once
more. However, many intended addressees could not be found, so the ‘lost’
letters were periodically burned in bulk. The fate of these letters sheds light
not only on the contested relations between private and public communica-
tion (a tension I address later in this article) but also on the trajectory of a
letter in a severed communication process. The newspaper, perhaps, resem-
bles a‘dead letters office’ that intercepts the letters to the dead and exposes
them to strangers’ eyes. However, as I explained elsewhere (Aronis 2017), in
this case the newspaper actually facilitates the letters’ movement and brings
them life, not death, reaching out to a public that can interact with the letter,
its writer and even the dead addressee.
Apparatus of two or more media
Second, cases of letters to the dead in public media tend to include at least
two media, with one medium being hosted by one or more others. Usually it is
the interpersonal medium (a letter, a note and so on) that is embedded within
one or more public media that provide a wide range of mass audiences for the
text. Thus, this phenomenon can be understood in terms of its constellation of
media, each with its own publication and distribution procedures. What are
the affordances of each medium? What are its limitations? How do the media
work together, and what do they provide to one another?
Facebook notes, for instance, involve a constellation of the letter/note,
computer, internet and social media; for notes written at the 9/11 Memorial
next to photos of the victims, we might consider how the note, picture,
memorial statue and site each disseminate messages to visitors and observ-
ers. When they are printed in newspapers, letters to the dead are usually laid
out in long frames next to other news items. Sometimes they look like a piece
of paper that has been torn out of a notebook. If available, the letters some-
times include the original handwriting of the writer. We observe here a clear
practice of remediation: the content of one medium being embedded by a
certain practice in another medium (Bolter and Grusin 1999; McLuhan [1964]
1999). McLuhan argued that‘the “content” of any medium is always another
medium’ ([1964] 1999: 8). But both he and Bolter and Grusin focused on
visual electronic media, especially their speed, immediacy, unique forms and
dissemination. Though many contemporary letters to the dead are embedded
in social media or other websites, letters in newspapers lead us back to paper,
its materiality and practice.
Following Bolter and Grusin (1999), the newspaper as a technology refash-
ions the letter, inviting this somewhat nostalgic form into a newer medium.
However, this is done under the logic of hypermediacy: it emphasizes the pres-
ence of the other medium (the letter) and the act of mediation. Though some
of the letters are marked as such by their headlines (e.g.‘A letter to Lior’,
Vishinski 2009: 3), their format and rhetoric make them stand out regard-
less, since they offer a different form of communication within the context
of the newspaper. They are also written in the second person and in present
tense, and address the recipient casually and often intimately. By contrast, the
surrounding journalistic writing focuses on reporting events objectively to all
the paper’s readers.
There is evidence that newspapers grew out of newsletters, group corre-
spondence that discussed both private and public matters and offered updates
Communication as travel 31
about various recent events (Bazerman 2000). Newsletters date back to seven-
teenth-century England and spread across Europe even before the emergence
of the press. Remediating the newsletter content as the newspaper content
is straightforward, but in our current case it has been estranged: the letter to
the dead does not blend in but is framed and stands out. Since the content is
so unusual, it is subject to hypermediacy rather than immediacy because the
traces of mediation have not been erased (Bolter and Grusin 1999; see also
Barton and Hall 2000).
The letter, an interpersonal medium with its communicative practice, is
thus embedded in the newspaper – a mass medium with different commu-
nicative practices. This is also relevant to websites, radio, concerts or books
that‘carry’ or mediate these letters to the dead. McLuhan pointed out that‘the
“message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or
pattern that it introduces into human affair[s]’ ([1964] 1999: 8). Considering the
design of these two intertwined media, it is clear that the newspaper amplifies
and accelerates the letter’s‘scale’ and‘pace’. Without the newspaper, the letter
to the dead would get nowhere, as the dead do not have a certain geographi-
cal address. The newspapers‘carry’ the letter faster than the post office would
have, but also enhance the scale of dissemination and readership. A letter that
would otherwise get lost or never get sent can, through the newspaper, reach
countless places, hands, eyes and hearts. In an earlier article, I argued that
the newspaper gives life to these letters to the dead – providing them‘endless
destinations, endless recipients, and endless dissemination throughout space’
(Aronis 2017: 840, original emphasis). Newspapers, with their promise of
connectivity, are known for their success in sending messages‘everywhere’. In
addition, they give a sense of validation to what they publish, thus contribut-
ing to an illusory resurrection of the dead (Aronis 2017).
In/direct addressors and addressees
Third, when they are published in a newspaper, letters to the dead enter into a
complicated system of addressors and addressees. A phenomenological analy-
sis of how they work, I believe, will also shed important light on the appara-
tus of addressorship. Personal letters mediate words which in turn mediate
thoughts, feelings, descriptions and so on. They usually feature one addressor
and one addressee, though both roles can also be collective. The materiality of
the letter is important: it is an artefact that passes from one person to another,
often crossing geographical spaces and sometimes just overcoming a gap of
time (e.g. leaving a note for a housemate to see when s/he wakes up).
Placing letters within the public media adds another venue of addressor-
ship, intertwined with the first set. Arguably, journalists and reporters are the
main addressors in a newspaper, though they are enmeshed in complex rela-
tionships with editors, owners, colleagues and even sources. The newspaper
readers, on the other hand, could count as the addressees. Many times, public
media do not have specific recipients or addressees, as Thompson (1995)
explains, but an indefinite range of potential recipients towards whom the
messages would not be specifically oriented.
This mixture between the interpersonal medium and the mass/public
medium, between the ‘mediated interaction’ of the letter and the ‘medi-
ated quasi-interaction’ of the newspaper (Thompson 1995: 83–84), consti-
tutes a complicated array of addressors and addressees. When, for example,
Yairi (2012) writes to Uzi, the husband she lost 37 years ago, she addresses
Carolin Aronis
32 Explorations in Media Ecology
him in the second person:‘[t]here almost isn’t a day that I don’t speak with
you […] I consistently share with you my pride in them. […] I’m writing you
fragments of thoughts worded carefully’ (2012: 6, emphasis added). It seems
that‘Uzi’, or any other dead person addressed by a letter writer in this genre,
is the‘intended reader’ (Barton and Hall 2000).
While the principle of public media is to expose messages to the public,
potential recipients expect messages to address them. In television, news-
papers and radio, the public is the main addressee, especially of news and
information. Moreover, texts that are written in the second person create the
illusion of being addressed directly to‘you’, such as the US Army’s slogan‘I
Want You’. As I show elsewhere (Aronis 2015, 2017), the letters create a
confusing temporary illusion of addressing the texts to the newspaper read-
ers, or at least having them imagine being the addressee. Because we have all
thought about our own deaths and how they would affect people we love, and
because we have all experienced the death of someone we love, these letters,
in a way, represent a universal interaction between the living and the dead.
Therefore, it is safe to state that these letters have both a dead addressee and
public media addressees – those who feel addressed directly by these letters.
In this ‘direct recipient address’, the readers have the impression‘of being
spoken to’ (Thompson 1995: 101). It is clear when a newscaster or publicist
addresses the audience directly, by looking at them or using second-person
address (e.g. Horton and Wohl [1956] 1979; Scannell 1991), but we should
also recognize similar dynamics in letters like these.
The newspaper readers not only imagine themselves as being directly
addressed but also, at the same time, are constructed as eavesdropping on the
interaction. Like the workers at the dead letter office who read others’ mail,
they receive what Thompson called‘indirect recipient address’ (1995: 102). In
theory, the interaction is not directed towards them at all, but publishing it in
the media puts them in the middle of the situation. In this way, the one direct
addressee, who is dead and thus cannot see the letter, morphs into count-
less indirect addressees who are alive but not explicitly addressed. What is
normally a reciprocal practice between the writer and the addressee thus binds
the newspaper readers to a non-reciprocal interaction of observing, peeking at
other people’s personal interactions – similar to Thompson’s notions of‘medi-
ated interaction’ and‘mediated quasi-interaction’.
In observing these complexities, we should not overlook the journalists’
potential ventriloquism in this process. By publishing certain letters at certain
times, they can advocate for a particular view or ideology, especially since
many of the letters concern war or terror. Furthermore, the journalists frame
and title the letters, and of course they provide the publication venue in the
first place. Some letters are even published with photographs of the writer
and/or addressee, further blurring the lines between journalistic writing and
private/public writing. Since each case works differently, any analysis of a
given letter (or similar messages in other genres) must account for these shift-
ing models of addressorship.8
Public and private communicative practices
Fourth, it is not only significant that these letters embed an interpersonal
medium within a mass medium – the personal-private letter embedded within
the public newspaper – but also significant that such an embedding impacts
the communicative practices of the phenomenon. Therefore, both public and
8. To add another‘layer’
of addressorship, this
could also be seen
as the writer giving
voice to the dead. In
one letter, a mother
imitates her sons’
voices from the grave
(Peretz 2010), while
in another a father
quotes a letter his son
wrote before his death
(Muskal 2007).
Communication as travel 33
private aspects are essential to the understanding of the genre. Although there
is a great historical connection between letter writing and the emergence of
journalism,9 private letters between ordinary people are not part of the norma-
tive content that public media like newspapers provide. If personal letters
appear at all, they are either addressed to the editor or to a public figure, typi-
cally to correct an error, respond to an article or call attention to a matter of
public interest (Moreland-Russell et al. 2012; Wahl-Jorgensen 2002; Wendelin
2010). Framing a private letter, therefore, mislocates it, calling it to readers’
attention and emphasizing its private, personal and interpersonal strangeness.
Though these letters can be characterized as having a private presence
in the public sphere, they were explicitly written for publication, represent-
ing what Boorstin called a‘pseudo-event’ (quoted in Strate 2017: 56). Other
messages to the dead operate similarly. For instance, Eric Clapton originally
wrote‘Tears in Heaven’ for a film (and later a concert and album) rather than
writing it for himself and later deciding to publish it. A few writers in the
Israeli newspapers also mentioned that they had never written to their dead
relative before. The private message is created within the public one at the
same time, not in a multistage process.
Writing and publishing a personal letter to a very dear person requires
exposing the writer’s intimate thoughts and emotions, giving readers a
glimpse into a private relationship that often kept developing after the
addressee’s death. Ziser (2003), for instance, tells her dead baby (and with
him, the newspaper readers) about the feeling of having him in her womb,
about his first smile and about what they did together in the first two months
of his life. Meanwhile, El-Chai (2010), in a letter to a colleague who died in the
Carmel wildfire, tells her that he loved her; Peretz (2010) recalls the moments
when she used to sit between her sons’ beds at bedtime and caress their hair;
and a military commander confesses to a fallen comrade that his eyes were
flooded with tears and that his body was shrinking from longing for/missing
him (Alef 2013). Each letter exposes very personal and private thoughts and
recalls moments about or with the dead, unusual topics to be brought up in a
public media.
Addressing the dead while also indirectly addressing the newspaper’s
readers requires that the writer reinforces his or her extratextual competence
on two fronts (Violi 1985). If we adopt Goffman’s (1981) characterization of
the roles of the participants in an interaction, we might say that the official
addressee is the dead addressee, while the newspaper’s readers are unoffi-
cial addressees who may even be understood to be eavesdroppers vis-à-vis
the letters. However, the latter are owed the ability to understand these texts.
Though taken from a different context, Bernstein’s (1994) distinction between
restricted and elaborated code is helpful here. The use of restricted code
assumes shared knowledge between the speakers, and hence allows the use
of coded speech. This can help us understand how the writer uses restricted
code with both the dead and the readers on account of the knowledge they
possess separately.
In order to make the text accessible to both types of addressees, the writ-
ers try to elaborate the code in both directions. For example, Ziser (2003)
tells her baby that she took him to the Well-Baby Clinic (which he would
already know), Peretz (2010) tells her children about a song that they loved
and Muskal (2007) tells his son about a letter that he (the son) wrote a year
ago. These examples show how the code is broadened to include the readers
and how it helps them understand part of the relationship or background.
9. Newsletters that
updated people
about public events,
which later evolved
to become the press,
developed from letters
passing from person to
person, each of whom
could add his or her
personal comments in
the designated margins
of the text (Peters 1999).
Likewise, personal
letters, at least in the
United States, could
be published in the
newspapers or the
post offices. Post office
managers used to
freely quote letters in
their newsletters, from
billets-doux to personal
correspondences. Not
only was the content
of a letter exposed
to prying eyes, but
the reception of the
letter was also public:
until the second half
of the 1800s, the cost
of sending a letter
was borne by the
addressee, and thus
local post offices would
write down (and read)
every item that arrived.
Therefore, the post
offices knew almost
everything that was
going on, no matter
how private, and even
deployed censorship.
Private mail was only
made possible in the
1840s and 1850s with
the invention of the
stamp: since the sender
prepaid the postage,
it was no longer
necessary to record
all letters at the post
office. The envelope
was registered as a US
patent in 1849, helping
to construct more
concrete concepts of
privacy in relation to
Carolin Aronis
34 Explorations in Media Ecology
Explanations given to the dead addressees about what has happened since
their death – for instance, how many soldiers died during the war, that the
Chief of Staff resigned or that the baby died from eating defective formula –
constitute details that the newspaper’s readers know but that the dead do not.
On one hand, it is clear that the writer’s codes have been broadened for
both addressees. On the other, some of the codes between the writer and
the dead are kept restricted, which gives a feeling of a private language and
a sense of intimacy that the readers are being invited into, officially or unof-
ficially. For instance, the use of nicknames like‘Toosh’ (Goldwasser 2008: 3),
loving addresses like‘my sweetheart’ (Ramon 2011: 9) and‘Mom’ and‘Dad’,
along with mentioning small facts without explanations, invite the newspaper
readers to become part of the restricted code in the letter, and in a way these
things serve to draw them closer to the writer and the dead; in short, the
readers become part of the situation. It is as if the writers invite the readers to
visit their homes and take a look‘backstage’ (Goffman 1959). This invitation
evokes a feeling of invading the authentic, personal and private situations of
others. Elsewhere, I argue that this practice helps create a sense of intimacy
in the public media (Aronis 2015). Such practices also provide insight into
the creation of collective and personal memory, the tension between public
and private rhetorical practices in media messages and changes in journal-
ism. Here, however, I want to emphasize that the letter is positioned in a
tense relationship between the private and the public: (1) it is a private text
that is embedded, almost surprisingly, in the public sphere; (2) it was crafted
for the purpose of being published; and (3) while it takes into consideration
both addressees – the dead and the newspaper readers – it retains an enig-
matic, private language between the writer and the dead, one that stresses the
privacy of the text but simultaneously invites readers to share the secret.
The non-living addressee and substitute readers
Fifth and last, I would like to characterize this phenomenon in terms of a
communicative act with the non-living addressee. Imagine writing this kind
of letter: sitting down at your desk, opening a new Word document or setting
out a blank sheet of paper, slowly writing the name of the dead, a person you
loved and miss, approaching her (or him or them), telling her things, reimag-
ining an interaction with her and trying to reconstruct the familiar speech you
used with her in the past. The practice of creating and publicly distributing this
intimate message attempts to reconstruct an elusive and challenging interac-
tion with the deceased person. While such writing can be a therapeutic way
to grieve, these letters even more essentially provide a unique communicative
act: writing to an addressee who is no longer there, and who will never be.
Ong highlights the practice of writing vis-à-vis distance between the
writer, text and reader(s), observing the‘pastness’ (1977: 421) of the text. He
finds death first within the text itself, even before he finds it within the writers
or readers. Written texts, he explains, are always detached from the context of
their reading; when they are read, they are likewise detached from the context
of their creation, from their writer(s) and from the moment and/or place of
their creation. Therefore, he explains, every written text‘carries with it neces-
sarily an aura of accomplished death’ (1977: 421), as it could be alive only in
the oral situation when the words are audible and both the speaker and hearer
are present and alive (Ong 1977). Ong sees texts as monuments that can live
apart from the past of their creation:‘writing “lives” only posthumously and
Communication as travel 35
vicariously’, but‘only if living people have the skills to give it a share in their
lives’ (1977: 422). For Ong, a text can be resurrected through its readers in its
potential to enter‘into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number
of living readers’ (Ong 1982: 80). In other words, texts need readers in order to
live; communicative acts need living contexts and interpretations.10
In the case of the letters to the dead, the direct addressee is already dead.
What is the destiny of a text with a dead reader? What is communication
without a living addressee? When explaining oral interaction, Ong notes
that‘[w]ithout a living hearer, the words are ineffective, uneventful, inoper-
ative, a movement toward nothing’. Ong puts into words what many other
communication theoreticians would only assume; in Dewey ([1916] 1966,
1927) and Cooley ([1909] 1956, 1922), through the two-step flow of commu-
nication theory (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955), through semiotics (Peirce [1965]
2003; Saussure [1974] 2003) and speech act theory (Austin 1962), towards
Carey ([1989] 2009), McLuhan ([1964] 1999) and Innis ([1951] 1999), just to
name a few, there is always an assumption of a live potential addressee.
However, following Emerson, it is Peters (1999) who argues that in every
stance of communication there is no reciprocity anyway, no dialogic act. Even
the basic practice of a direct verbal dialogue between two people has, at its
very core, a void. We communicate with others, but we never know how, or
even whether, our messages reach them. Peters writes,‘[y]ou can read poetry
to a person in a coma, never knowing if the words are “getting through”, but
the same doubt is just as relevant in other settings, as any teacher or parent
knows’ (1999: 264). Peters notes that Emerson’s idea that‘[i]n all our conver-
sation we write, and receive, only unanswered letters’ (1999: 155) shows that
Emerson does not expect communication to include responses and replies at
all; for Emerson, communication is essentially based on void and non-real
replies. A text is not dependent on its readers’ presence in space and time:
one writes, records and films while never knowing the path of the message,
how others will receive it, or if they receive it at all. Following Emerson’s lead,
Peters (1999) compares communication to talking to the dead.
Peters uses the dead mainly as a metaphor for the essential or elemen-
tal practice of communication. Ong might concur with that description of the
communicative act, as texts are worthy only through their living readers. It
is important to recognize that in this case study, the dead are a stark reality
in the communicative act, not only a metaphor or hypothesis: people write
letters to real dead people. To understand this phenomenon, it is crucial to
consider the practice of writing to, and with, a void. This is writing for the sake
of writing, writing to someone who will not read the text, who will only be
imagined within the writing.11 The dead addressee is in fact part of a fantasy
that will never come true; s/he will have an elusive feeling of presence, but still
her/his absence will be noticeable.
While many people have written privately to the dead – Emerson, for
instance, addressed journal entries to his late wife Ellen (Richardson 1995) –
they did not write for publication. By contrast, these letters are not standalone
texts, but rather are embedded within a live, public medium. The newspaper,
or any other public medium that‘carries’ such letters, provides the letter with
an entire community of readers, along with the validation, connectivity and
movement that a public medium offers (Aronis 2017). As a result, the newspa-
per’s readers provide a certain substitute recipiency, giving the letters a living
context and a share in their lives (returning to Ong), even though they are
only addressed indirectly. Without the public media, the letters would have
10. Ong (1977, 1982)
mainly considers the
death of the written
word along with the
death of the author,
and not so much that
of the readers. He
explains that it makes
no difference if the
author is dead when
the text goes along,
as texts assume the
death of their creation,
including the author, in
any case.
11. See, for instance,
Ong (1982) for the
practice of writing
that always leads the
writer to set up a role
for the readers – be
they absent or even
unknown – so they
can cast them and
fictionalize a mood for
them by thinking about
the state in which they
will read the text.
Carolin Aronis
36 Explorations in Media Ecology
12. McLuhan ([1964]
1999: 57) relates this
to‘the technological
extension of
consciousness’, though
differently than
Isuggest here.
no significant communicative value; they would only express a‘broken’ act of
communication, with no future. The public audience, in short, gives the letter
This article discussed five facets of letters to the dead in the public media in
hopes of offering media and communications scholars an elemental founda-
tion for understanding and further analysing this phenomenon. I believe that
future studies should examine these letters in terms of reconstructing memory,
changes in journalistic practices, therapeutic grieving processes in a public
technological setting and so on. Using media ecology in a phenomenologi-
cal manner, this article provided basic characteristics of the routes and move-
ment of the letters, their media apparatus, how they constitute a constellation
of multiple addressors and addressees, how they create intertwined tension
between the private and the public and how their communicative acts include
both non-living addressees and substitute potential readers. While some of
these characteristics overlap, future work can engage one or more of them
more fully to enrich and complicate the generic model.
The Writers extension to nowhere and to everywhere
Marshall McLuhan describes technologies as extending our ‘physical and
nervous systems to increase power and speed’ (McLuhan [1964] 1999: 90).
This brings to mind how the keyboard extends our fingers and the computer
screen extends our eyes. In McLuhan’s view, words are also‘complex systems
of metaphors and symbols that translate experience into our uttered or outered
senses. [Words] are a technology of explicitness’ (McLuhan [1964] 1999: 57).
This case study invites us to take this idea one step further and see the writ-
ten words, the letter and the newspaper collectively as extensions of the writ-
ers’ souls, minds and selves.12 These words, with all the distance and loss that
they establish, still extend – metaphorically and physically – the writers out of
their inner and private worlds, to the outside of themselves, towards the wider
world, the public, the‘nowhere’ or even the realm of death.
Drawing on Ong (1977, 1982), the letters in the newspaper embody past-
ness because they were written in the past and are not accompanied by their
creators. However, their pastness also coerces their movement into the present
and to the future: they may be distant from the writer, but at least they keep
moving, hence extending the writer and her/his text from one point to another.
McLuhan writes that ‘our electric-extensions of ourselves simply by-pass
space and time and create problems of human involvement and organization
for which there is no precedent’ ([1964] 1999: 105). The letters to the dead
exemplify a wish to bypass space and time, but not necessarily through the
electronic bias, or the kind we usually deal with in daily communication, or in
the newspaper.
Public media and the sense of hope
In his book Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television,
Sconce (2000) examines a variety of historical questions surrounding the issue
of‘presence’ in electronic media, exploring how the basic quality of‘liveness’
has been conceptualized and creatively elaborated in American culture over
the past century and a half. Specifically, he explores how ‘media presence’
Communication as travel 37
includes aspects of electronic media and a quest for‘living’ evidence of the
dead. Letters to the dead emphasize non-electronic media, which particularly
represent (and reconstruct) the absence of the dead, not their presence. This
entails the disappearance of the official addressee, along with a movement of
the message towards substitute eyes (Aronis 2017).
Sconce (2000), McLuhan ([1964] 1999), Innis ([1951] 1999) and others
show or assume that media technologies overcome the distance of space and/
or time. Sconce, for instance, shows how electronic media were perceived
through history as overcoming even the unreachable distance of death. This
current phenomenon offers a slight shift to this idea, one that does not neces-
sarily cross the boundaries between electronic and non-electronic media.
Public media provide the potential to overcome the distance of space and time,
a fantasy of reaching the unreachable, a promise to approach both‘nowhere’
and‘anywhere’ (Sconce 2000) and a sort of hope that media can address the
universe. Real evidence of reaching or not reaching someone, in practice, erodes
this promise. Following Emerson, Peters (1999) argues that the basic practice
of communication entails messages that are sent without expecting a reply
and without knowing if and how they have been received. Communication is
like talking to the dead, he asserts. However, while Peters finds death in the
not-knowing process, it seems that there is actually hope, promise and poten-
tial in this process – in other words, life. Messages are created for newspapers,
on Twitter or Facebook, in urban spaces and in other public settings with the
hope of reaching someone. Not getting feedback, however, does not mean
death – it means hope. As those who have reached out to missing loved ones
know very well, even the lack of a reply still allows hope that the addressee is
still alive.
Thompson (1995) defines the form of a letter as ‘mediated interaction’,
assuming (and expecting) it to constitute a responsive, reciprocal communi-
cative practice. In our current case, however, the dead do not perform any
responsiveness. While the reciprocal character of the letter does invite a sense,
even an illusion, of mutual interaction (one of the reasons the dead seem to
come alive through these letters), the newspaper does not (Aronis 2017). For
Thompson (1995), newspapers are characterized by ‘mediated quasi-interac-
tions’, essentially lacking the reciprocal manner; however, their sense of illu-
sion is entailed in their non-reciprocal manner. Hence, both the letter and
the newspaper work the same way: addressing a person (or audience) with-
out getting feedback and holding some sense of illusion or hope or doubt
about who it reaches and how. This could also be true for notes to the dead
on Facebook, for graffiti messages in urban sites and for letters in book collec-
tions. The interpersonal letter to a missing addressee holds some similar char-
acteristics to the public medium that sends messages to the world without
knowing their reach.
Communication as travel
This phenomenon of letters to the dead encourages us to understand the
practice of communication and media in a different light – as travelling rather
than reaching the other. Peters reminds us that ‘[d]istance and death have
always been the two great obstacles to love and the two great stimulants to
desire’ and that ‘[g]reat obstacles excite great passions’ (1999: 137). Hence,
because death is the highest form of distance, it stimulates the eros, or love
instinct, that‘seeks to span the miles, reach into the grave, and bridge all the
Carolin Aronis
38 Explorations in Media Ecology
13. Peters mentions a long
list of melancholic
communicative acts
that never reach the
consciousness of other
The tunes my wife
hums inside her
head; the dreams I
forget on waking;
the conversations
children have with
their‘air friends’
when they are
alone; the sound
of the heartbeat
in my ears as I lie
upon the pillow; the
smell of mammoth
meat frozen a mile
deep within the
glacier; the letters
in the pockets of
the kamikaze pilot;
what the sirens sang
to the rowers in the
belly of Odysseus’s
ship; what the
colors look like
beyond violet and
below red; what
the jawbone felt
under the dentist’s
drill while the nerve
was numbed with
Novocain; what
great works died
in the trenches of
World War I; what
the color, humidity,
and temperature
are within the
(1999: 171)
See also his discussion
14. In a way, we can also
see the public medium
as a‘substitute
medium’ or‘supporting
medium’ for the letter,
an interpersonal one
that lacks its addressee.
chasms’ (Peters 1999: 137). For Peters, death invites/coerces/attracts communi-
cation. Moreover, as he argues in his exposition of Emerson, communication
with the dead is also the paradigm of communication, as‘[i]n all our conver-
sation we write, and receive, only unanswered letters’ (Peters 1999: 155). The
paradigm of communication is the letter, or message, that never reaches its
intended destiny: an experience that points to the impossibility of complet-
ing a full and ideal process of communication.13 This act of communication
is attached, in his view, to death, to dead ends, to burning and to dereliction.
He describes the‘dead letters’ as ‘bodies without spirits to breathe life into
them’ and explains that the‘contents of the Dead Letter Office are melan-
choly props of an enormous dereliction, that of the unclaimed dead, the unre-
deemed’ (Peters 1999: 170). Drawing on Ricoeur, Peters shows that instead of
reaching its destination, the letter will be read by others‘always in conditions
of eavesdropping’ by‘the unprivileged addressee of the discourse’ (1999: 150).
However, in our case study, in their very creation the letters already seem
dead or lost, as they are written with the knowledge that their addressees
cannot receive them. Publication in the newspaper allows these letters to be
read by others. Though there is some similarity to the practice of the‘dead
letter office’, the practice of communication that this phenomenon establishes
is neither a melancholic movement towards a hopeless dead end nor a move-
ment towards a certain end (an intended living addressee, for instance). The
practice of communication that we face here is the actual practice of travel-
ling; it is the journey itself rather than a certain destination. The communica-
tive act here, which only starts by writing to the dead and in practice never
ends, is about looking for substitute addressees who would stand in for the
non-living one, addressees who will offer life to the text. But the newspaper
is not a sealed, deadly space like the Dead Letter Office. Public media offer
indefinite indirect addressees to substitute for the non-living direct one, and
they provide value by widely publishing these letters, as otherwise, as Ong
puts it,‘the words are ineffective, uneventful, inoperative, a movement toward
nothing’ (1977: 422).14
This unique type of practice helps us understand communication through
its search for alternative potential readers – a complicated, winding process
of communication with no clear or set trajectory or end. The words a mother
writes to her baby, a widow to her husband, a reporter to his late colleague,
will never reach them, but will keep looking for alternative eyes and hearts
that will adopt the text. This adoption will never be fully satisfying as the alter-
native readers are never the intended one, but always secondary, different, not
necessarily sought after. Hence, the text will never gain serenity, and it must
keep travelling.
This letter to the dead, I would like to argue, demonstrates the paradigm
of mass communication, which is not only about one-way communication with
the unknown, but which also involves unknown and alternative addressees
who take the text to heart and give it their own meanings. This process of
communication is thus neither unidirectional nor circular, as communication
is often traditionally defined. There is no message being sent from one point to
another, and no point where it is simply accepted. Rather, the communication
follows a winding path between different addressors and different address-
ees. Like the innumerable envois that Derrida sends in his book The Post Card
(1987), letters can be sent with no expectation of a traditional reply. Their
existence is constituted through the act of being sent; through their tensions
between private and public, interpersonal and mass, they are interwoven
Communication as travel 39
within the passage of their sending. This is a lesson about how communica-
tion works – not as a matter of success or satisfaction, but as a matter of trying,
travelling, wandering and, most of all, looking for alternative living contexts.
Alef, L. C. (2013),‘And the body, my brother Nir, is like shrinking inwards from
longing’, Maariv, 14 April, p. 2 (author’s translation from the Hebrew).
Aronis, C. (2015),‘“Mediated public intimacy”: Practices of popular media
in establishing intimacy with audiences’, thesis submitted for the degree
of‘Doctor of Philosophy’, Jerusalem: Hebrew University.
——— (2017),‘Communicative resurrection: Letters to the dead in the Israeli
newspaper’, Journal of Communication, 67:6, pp. 827–50.
Austin, J. L. (1962), How to Do Things with Words, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Barthes, R. ([1972] 2001), Mythologies, New York: Hill and Wang.
Barton, D. and Hall, N. (2000),‘Introduction’, in D. Barton and N. Hall (eds),
Letter Writing as a Social Practice, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: John
Benjamins, pp. 1–14.
Bazerman, C. (2000), ‘Letters and the social grounding of differentiated
genres’, in D. Barton and N. Hall (eds), Letter Writing as a Social Practice,
Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins, pp. 15–30.
Bernstein, B. (1994),‘Social class, language and socialization’, in J. Corner and
J. Hawthorn (eds), Communication Studies: An Introductory Reader, London:
Edward Arnold, pp. 47–55.
Bolter, J. D. and Grusin, R. (1999), Remediation: Understanding New Media,
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Carey, J. ([1989] 2009), Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society,
New York: Routledge.
Clapton, E. and Jennings, W. (1992), ‘Tears in Heaven’, Rush (soundtrack
album), CD, track 10 (recorded by E. Clapton), Dorking: Duck Records/
Reprise Records.
Cooley, C. H. (1922), Human Nature and the Social Order, rev. ed., New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons.
——— ([1909] 1956), Social Organization, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, http://
Accessed 12 June 2018.
Craig, R. T. (2013),‘Communication theory and social change’, Communication
& Social Change, 1:1, pp. 5–18.
Curtis, B. (ed.) (2011), The Legacy Letters: Messages of Life and Hope from 9/11
Family Members, New York: Penguin Books.
Derrida, J. (1987), The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, Chicago, IL:
The University of Chicago Press.
Dewey, J. (1927), The Public and Its Problems, New York: Henry Holt.
——— ([1916] 1966), Democracy and Education, New York: The Free Press.
El-Chai, L. (2010),‘I loved you, Ahuva’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 7 December, p. 9
(author’s translation from the Hebrew).
Emmons, C. F. (2009),‘Spiritualist movement’, in C. D. Bryant and D. L. Peck
(eds), Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience, vol. 2, Thousand Oaks,
CA: SAGE Publications, pp. 883–87.
Farkash, A. (2011), ‘Your orphaned chair’, Yedioth Ahronoth, Memorial Day
Section, 8 May, p. 4 (author’s translation from the Hebrew).
Carolin Aronis
40 Explorations in Media Ecology
Farkash, A. and Kerzner, I. (2005), ‘A million stars’, YouTube, posted by Gal
Alfandary. No longer available.
Ferenc, L. (2016), ‘Chalk tributes are long gone, but Jack Layton’s legacy
endures’, TheStar.Com, 22 August,
legacy-endures.html. Accessed 13 June 2018.
Gitelman, L. (1999), Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing
Technology in the Edison Era, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Goffman, E. (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York:
——— (1981), Forms of Talk, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania
Goldwasser, K. (2008),‘Did I disappoint you?’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 18 July, p. 3
(author’s translation from the Hebrew).
Horton, D. and Wohl, R. R. ([1956] 1979), ‘Mass Communication and para-
social interaction: Observation on intimacy at a distance’, in G. Gumpert
and R. Cathcart (eds), Inter/Media: Interpersonal Communication in a Media
World, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 32–56.
Innis, H. A. ([1951] 1999), The Bias of Communication, Toronto: University of
Toronto Press.
John, E. and Taupin, B. (1997),‘Candle in the Wind’, Something about the Way
You Look Tonight, Candle in The Wind, CD, Single, side A, track 2, London:
Kastenbaum, R. (2001),‘Communication with the dead’, in R. Kastenbaum
(ed.), Encyclopedia of Death and Dying,
Ce-Da/Communication-with-the-Dead.html#ixzz59g3l4oUx. Accessed 1
May 2017.
Katz, E. and Lazarsfeld, P. (1955), Personal Influence, New York: The Free Press.
Kittler, F. A. (1999), Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press.
Lury, C. (1997),‘The objects of travel’, in C. Rojek and J. Urry (eds), Touring
Cultures, London: Routledge, pp. 75–95.
McLuhan, M. ([1964] 1999), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Merton, R. (1946), Mass Persuasion: The Social Psychology of a War Bond Drive,
New York: Free Press.
Milne, E. (2010), Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence, New York:
Moreland-Russell, S., Harris, J. K., Israel, K., Schell, S. and Mohr, A. (2012),
‘“Anti-smoking data are exaggerated” versus “the data are clear and indis-
putable”: Examining letters to the editor about tobacco’, Journal of Health
Communication, 17:4, pp. 1–17.
Muskal, M. (2007),‘A letter to a fallen son’, Maariv, 18 January, p. 5.
Natale, S. (2016), Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise
of the Modern Media Culture, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State
Ong, W. J. (1977),‘Maranatha: Death and life in the text of the book’, Journal of
the American Academy of Religion, 45:4, pp. 419–49.
——— (1982), Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, London:
Communication as travel 41
Peirce, C. P. ([1965] 2003), ‘Basic concepts of Peircean sign theory’, in M.
Gottdiener, K. Boklund-Lagopoulou and A. P. Lagopoulos (eds), Semiotics,
vol. 1, London: Sage Publications, n.pag.
Peretz, M. (2010),‘Sorry my sons’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 18 April, p. 14 (author’s
translation from the Hebrew).
Peters, J. D. (1999), Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication,
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Ramon, R. (2011),‘Daddy hugs you now’, Maariv, 8 May, p. 9.
Richardson, R. D. (1995), Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press.
Roberts, P. (2004),‘The living and the dead: Community in the virtual ceme-
tery’, OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 49:1, pp. 57–76.
Saussure, F. ([1974] 2003),‘Course in General Linguistics’, in M. Gottdiener, K.
Boklund-Lagopoulou and A. P. Lagopoulos (eds), Semiotics, vol. 1, London:
Sage, n.pag.
Scannell, P. (1991), ‘Introduction: The relevance of talk’, in P. Scannell (ed.),
Broadcast Talk, London: Sage, pp. 1–13.
Sconce, J. (2000), Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television,
Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press
Strate, L. (2017), Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human
Condition, New York: Peter Lang.
Sword, H. (2002), Ghostwriting Modernism, Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell
University Press.
Thompson, J. (1995), The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media,
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Tomlinson, J. (1999), Globalization and Culture, Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press.
University College London (2002a), ‘Letters to the dead’, Digital Egypt for
religious/lettersdead.html. Accessed 3 April 2019.
——— (2002b), ‘Qau tomb 7695’, Digital Egypt for Universities, http://www. Accessed 3
April 2019.
Urry, J. (2000), Sociology beyond Societies, London: Routledge.
——— (2002),‘Mobility and proximity’, Sociology, 36:2, pp. 255–74.
Violi, P. (1985), ‘Letters’, in T. Van Dijk (ed.), Discourse and Literature: New
Approaches to the Analysis of Literary Genres, London: Sage, pp. 147–65.
Vishinski, O. (2009),‘A letter to Lior’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 24 Sha’ot Section, 27
April, p. 3 (author’s translation from the Hebrew).
Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2002),‘The normative-economic justification for public
discourse: Letters to the editor as a “wide open” forum’, Journalism & Mass
Communication Quarterly, 79:1, pp. 121–33.
Wendelin, G. (2010),‘The prostitute’s voice in the public eye: Police tactics
of security and discipline within Victorian journalism’, Communication and
Critical/Cultural Studies, 7:1, pp. 53–69.
Yairi, D. (2012), ‘When my world collapsed’, Yedioth Ahronoth, Memorial Day
Section, 24 April, p. 6 (author’s translation from the Hebrew).
Yonatan, N. (1995), Time Is Veiled, Tel Aviv: Poalim.
Ziser, M. (2003), ‘They murdered you, my baby’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 11
November, p. 1, 19 (author’s translation from the Hebrew).
Carolin Aronis
42 Explorations in Media Ecology
Aronis, C. (2019),‘Communication as travel: The genre of letters to the dead
in public media’, Explorations in Media Ecology, 18:1&2, pp. 23–42, doi:
Dr Carolin Aronis is currently a Special Faculty member of communication
studies at Colorado State University, and a Visiting Lecturer at the University
of Colorado Boulder. She holds a Ph.D. in communication and media stud-
ies from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and specializes in media and
cultural studies, urban communication, approaches to discourse analysis and
gender studies. One of her central interests is communicative practices that
challenge the essence of media and that contribute to the understanding of
how both communication and media actually work. She formerly worked as
a journalist.
Contact: Department of Communication Studies, Colorado State University,
A208 Behavioural Sciences Building, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1783, USA.
Carolin Aronis has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that
was submitted to Intellect Ltd.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
By studying letters written to the dead published in the popular Israeli press between 1997 and 2014, this paper examines the practices that constitute communicative acts toward a deceased person using interpersonal and mass media, in order to embody the recipiency of the dead. Using an analytical framework that draws on media ecology, communication theory, and discourse analysis, the paper demonstrates how the epistolary and mass media rhetoric operate to reconstruct the performance of the dead as an addressee. By exploring this understudied phenomenon and revisiting core notions of communication in light of written technologies, distance, and death, the paper argues that this communicative constellation, as a whole, is a performative act that offers a “communicative resurrection” to the dead.