Death and Facebook

I’ve been letting this one ruminate for a while, but a post from a writer I admire prompted me to finally put fingers to keyboard.

In the 7-odd years I’ve had a Facebook profile, a handful of either direct friends, or friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends–you know how it goes–have died. It’s one of the first places people turn after they hear the news, partly, perhaps, as a way to extend their initial shock. After all, it’s bizarre seeing someone preserved in digital format, to be able to click on the familiar profile picture featuring the now-deceased and his or her permanent smile. Suicides are particularly egregious, and people pore over the photos, the slim “About” page, perhaps even scroll down the timeline for the past few months, searching for the slightest clue about what could have pushed the person to the breaking point.

Unless that person happened to share their password with a good friend or relative, their profile will likely stay up. The keys to dismantling digital records usually die along with the people. It’s a type of longevity that I don’t think many people expect to acquire, especially in our contemporary world where a premium is placed on new, fast, relevant. What happened last year, or last month, or even a few hours ago is less interesting than what is happening right now. But when someone dies, the rules get suspended, and Facebook profiles becomes shrines.

It’s darkly amusing, in a way, to see people using Facebook as a ouija board to communicate with the dead. People leave long messages addressed to the deceased, “wherever they are,” or tag them in photos, or wish them well on their birthday. (As though the first thing people do after waking up on the other side is log onto Facebook to check their notifications!) There’s something strange about it, something seemingly disingenuous–but then funerals and other celebrations have never been about the dead person; they’re about the living people left behind.

Perhaps the reason I find Facebook eulogies frustrating is that they uncritically follow the old adage, “don’t speak ill of the dead.” Not that people always adhere to that saying–but a disapproving comment whispered into a sympathetic ear is much more easily forgotten than a Facebook message posted where hundreds, if not thousands, of people can see. I’m of the (admittedly unpopular) mindset that death shouldn’t change the way you feel towards a person. Just because the person has died doesn’t mean that their living actions weren’t harmful, or even that their actions aren’t still causing harm. The living do themselves a great disservice by sanitizing the dead, and Facebook’s high visibility seems to encourage precisely that kind of sanitization.

It’s certainly interesting to reflect on these ghostly Facebook profiles. They warp the boundary between death and life. We often say that people live on through the books they have written, or the movies they have made. What’s not to say that an astoundingly ordinary Facebook profile isn’t another way of extending life? Of percolating, gently and often colorfully, the veneer that separates what is beyond the grave from what is above it. And as skeptical as I may be of the sentimental messages that people write, clearly Facebook allows people to mourn in a seemingly productive way. The latent sense of guilt that those who continue living often express over having forgotten a loved one’s face is no longer a risk in a world where everyone, no matter how un-extrordinary, spends their life building their own, perfect shrine. Even in death, people worry about how they will be perceived, and what’s more powerful (and simultaneously more disturbing) than being able to control how people perceive you? Only the photos you deigned to share, the thoughts you dared to express, can be used against you. Those recorded words and photographs will win out over ever-fading, imperfect memory.

So what happens to those hollow profiles, those shadows of the dead? Will they ever be deleted? Or will they remain, scattered like so many brittle leaves, across the blue-and-white, for people to remember, always and always?

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12 thoughts on “Death and Facebook

  1. Wow, I’m sorry to hear that you have already lost friends and friends of friends. I experienced this FB phenomenon last year when a boy who had gone to summer camp with my son committed suicide (he was a little older than my son but not by much). It was such a blow to everyone that we all went to his FB page to try and understand what had happened. Actually, it was through some of the messages posted by friends that I figured it was suicide. I didn’t know him and I wonder how I would feel if I’d lost somebody closer but still had access to the FB page…

    1. Your comment points to something else that’s important about the grieving process, and how FB can help. I think the first question all people ask whenever someone dies is, “Why?” If FB can help answer that, then that might be a strange kind of blessing. As for already having lost friends and friends of friends, I don’t think my experience is all that uncommon. I haven’t lost any close friends, but the school I attended—Northwestern—is gaining a rather unfortunate reputation because of the smattering of suicides that have taken place over the last 4-5 years. There were a lot of major controversies regarding student access to mental health services during my junior and senior years.

  2. There was recently a man who had worked at my office for about six months then died of complications from surgery, tragic enough and he was only 40. I’m still being asked to endorse him for certain skills on LinkedIn! Thanks for a candid look at an issue I only suspected before now (since I shun Facebook). By the way, thanks for the congrats. R.

    1. How funny – in a morose way, I mean. Since Facebook is better at mining your personal data than LinkedIn is, I’m not surprised that the latter company isn’t as quick to identify the deceased. I’ve also heard stories about people who like to play practical jokes on their friends by reading the obit columns in the newspaper, finding a recently deceased person with the same name as one of their Facebook friends, and then contacting Facebook to have that person’s status marked “deceased.” Makes me glad I have an unusual name!

  3. What a tic of discusision! I didn’t even know people do this kind of thing. Now I’m so curious if I have a dead friend. 😀 ooops. Not that I’m hoping. Very well written Alina (nice that I can put a name there now than just literaryvittles). :S

    1. yes, I thought I ought to change my username so that people didn’t have to call me LV! If you find a deceased person’s profile, it’s quite interesting to see the messages people leave behind. thanks for the comment, Rommel!

  4. I did exactly this yesterday – read about two young men who had died, one from O’Connor and one from Churchill, and ran to the computer to Facebook stalk them to see if you or Erin might have known them. During my investigation, I realized that I was no better than a person who slows down and stares at an accident scene on the highway.

    1. Oh, no need to be so harsh on yourself! I think it’s natural to wonder about people who have just died. I wouldn’t equate re-visiting someone’s Facebook profile with rubbernecking. But if you leave one of those sappy messages to demonstrate what a kind, thoughtful person you are even though you didn’t really *know* the person that died… well, that’s something else entirely!

    1. Wow thank you for sharing!! I’ll have to download that to my Kindle so that I can read it. The synopsis looks very promising. I knew there had to be someone out there writing about this in a profound way!

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