As the Internet – and the digital natives who have grown up with it – mature, we are starting to see some early ways that digital communication is trying to approach the most knotty and painful aspect of life: death. Gen Yers and Xers have started to leverage a wide range of digital tools (blogs, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, etc.) to explore and process grief, loss and mourning.
We’re in the early stages of figuring out a common, culturally agreed upon digital etiquette for announcing someone’s death and communicating empathy for loss and mourning. Death is so fraught with emotion and vulnerability that our usual digital modus operandi (immediacy, pithiness, texting instead of calling, email instead of using the post) doesn’t work as well – if at all. In the era of simply pressing a button to “like” something, sending death announcements, condolences and emotional support via text message still feels too flip and insensitive to me. In some instances, people may use this approach as a way to compartmentalize the discomfort we as a culture feel around death. Personally, I feel if seeing someone face-to-face isn’t possible, a good old-fashioned phone call and a card is still the best approach.
But I’m sure that style of communication will change with time.
The etiquette around how to manage the remnants of the digital self is also evolving. Surviving friends and family members traditionally have had the duty of boxing and purging the ‘stuff’ of the deceased (e.g. their clothes, belongings, etc.). Now family and friends also have the responsibility of having to process the remnants of the digital self, such as the Facebook profile and email account of the deceased.
In Western culture, the concept of death is often hidden away and considered culturally inappropriate to discuss. Mourning is traditionally conducted in private and is not publicly acknowledged. In America in particular, we have a culturally agreed upon cognitive dissonance that ignores the reality of our mortality. At best, it is limited to confidential discussions within the family, among close friends or with a support group in our community.
The Internet and social media, however, are starting to transform that cultural discourse. Digital support groups are popping up with increased frequency and help the grieving process by providing perspective beyond the immediate resources available in one’s community.
There are also new digital ways to memorialize people and even prepare for one’s death. Startups, like Ancestry.com and StoryWorth are taking some interesting approaches to capture and catalog an elder’s personal stories and family history before they die. Indirectly, that phenomenon is effectively what Facebook’s Timeline is doing iteratively: it is an ongoing time capsule of our lives.
One key piece that is missing though among all these new digital tools is an understanding and integration of different cultures and traditions. Large websites like Facebook are useful because they connect so many different people. But culture and religion are not universal. Cultures relate to death and mourn the deceased in many different ways. For example, Hindus draw their traditions from the Vedas and have an entirely different religious and cultural relationship with death compared to American Judeo-Christian traditions.
In India, although funeral rites somewhat vary depending on the caste and family tradition of the deceased person, they are largely standardized. For example, traditionally a Hindu dies at home (even if someone die in the hospital, the family will immediately take the body home). Under no circumstances is the body embalmed by non-family members. The body is always cremated (never buried) and only male friends and family members go to the cremation site. The Vedas say that while it is reasonable to mourn and that mourning the deceased should not be suppressed, the surviving friends and family members shouldn’t feel excessive emotion such as lamenting the loss or feeling prolonged grief: the departed soul is conscious of the emotions directed towards them and protracted grieving can hold them in an earthly conscious which inhibits their full transition to the heaven worlds.
The concept of death is also much more openly acknowledged and intrinsically integrated into Indian culture as compared to the U.S. In Hinduism, death isn’t hidden away, feared, or viewed as something inappropriate to discuss. It isn’t considered an end, but rather a new beginning in the ongoing cycle of rebirth: dying is part of a process. Passing away is only a step in the existence of soul; a temporary cessation of the physical self.
One could say that these social media tools and Internet start-ups focused on death and grieving are in their own nascent incarnation: they are still in their infancy and are only focused on a narrow audience. However, if these companies want to succeed in the global marketplace – nonetheless in multicultural and immigrant-friendly countries like the U.S. – they need to recognize and integrate the plurality of human experience and how different cultures mourn, grieve and process death. Death may be universal, but our relationship to it is not.