C's bookshelf: read

The Peculiar
Maggot Moon
The City and the City
The Road
A Certain Slant of Light
The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Brown Girl in the Ring
Well Wished
The Innkeeper's Song
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
American Indian Myths and Legends
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Return of the King
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers

C S Peterson's favorite books »

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Facebook and the Dead

I’m going to write about death and social networking.  Within the last year I’ve lost three friends to cancer.  This really sucks.  I know death is inevitable, but I don’t have to like any aspect of it.  Since they saw death coming they all “made a good end” as Ophelia says.  They had bucket lists and the ability to do most of the things on them.  They had parties to celebrate their lives, their friends, families and their children.  There was music, art and poetry.  One chose assisted suicide, the other two had access to good hospice drugs so, as far as we can tell from the outside, physical suffering wasn’t an issue at the end.  This, of course, is different from the profound and horrific suffering that has accompanied death through most of time and place on our planet.  Despite these good ends, I still hate the huge gaping hole that is left when they are gone, not to mention the stunning reminder of my own mortality and the fragility of all the lives around me that I love. 

So I turn to facebook. 

I notice an interesting thing begins to happen.  The facebook page of a dead person seems to go through a consistent transformation.  First it becomes a digital gathering place for people to leave condolences for the bereaved.  After some time has passed, posts transition to statements of praise and appreciation for the person who has passed.  After still more time passes posts begin to be addressed directly to the dead: “found a picture of us…,” “went to such a place where we…,” “was singing a song and thought of you…”  Five months after one friend had passed he had accepted the friend requests of over forty new people!  Finally, I have noticed that people are posting as if the dead person were still in communication – birthday greetings, events “Visiting the coast. Wish you were here.” “Hope things are going well for you in your new life.  Bet you are putting on quite a show up there!” 

The way we communicate has changed radically in the last ten years, but we are still tribal creatures.  We sit at computer screens in the gathering dark of an awesome, terrifying universe.  As a globe we each huddled around our flame in this digital community fire, while an invisible host of the living and the dead sits at our elbow.


  1. Katie, the final paragraph is so thoughtful, apt, & shows how sensitive you are to the world as a whole. I'd never thought of it in this way but It is true that we seem to hover near the computer now, as once we gathered around a fire. We have recently said goodbye to a friend who isn't on Facebook, & the difficulty of communication since he & family are far away, & we don't know what is happening now is hard. We Wish we could be there, but cannot, so Facebook news might help. On the other hand, I feel it's a rather selfish wish. Perhaps all this is because we're all so spread out anymore. Anyway, I loved your idea, am sorry for all your losses this year, & thank you for making me think again about this.

  2. I've seen these kinds of posts also. I am not sure how I feel about them. Perhaps it is no different than when I speak to my parents or grandparents who have gone on. It becomes now, just a written tribute, another way to communicate that helps people deal with that hole that is left beside them.
    Hopefully, it is an acceptance and not an avoidance of the death.

  3. very touching, thanks. do you mind if i share this w/ friends?

  4. I am sorry for your loss. Your slice leaves me thinking.

  5. "We sit at computer screens in the gathering dark of an awesome, terrifying universe. As a globe we each huddled around our flame in this digital community fire"
    I like this part the best. You made me think of "us" in a way I have not before.
    I am sorry you can no longer spend time with your friends but hope you have many memories to keep them close to you.

  6. I am so sorry for the losses in your life. Our mortality is something we don't think of often until an event brings it to the forefront of our life. Your words are thought provoking. I will be mulling them in my mind.

  7. Your post was perfect for me. I just spoke with a wonderful friend yesterday who has just begun to battle lung cancer. I am new to being on the sidelines with a fatal disease and I have never thought about FB afterlife.
    Very courageous of you to share this,

  8. I'm so sorry to hear of your losses, that's perhaps the hardest part of life. Recently a former student in our small district passed away after a courageous battle with MD. His smile and determination inspired so many and I have seen how Facebook keeps us connected with his spirit.

  9. When I first noticed this happening, it was with teenagers. I thought it was a good way for these young people to deal with the loss of a friend. I didn't really think it would move on to people my age. But it has. And your last paragraph sums everything up perfectly.

  10. I have noticed this too! My friend even wondered if there is Facebook in Heaven after receiving birthday greetings from her recently deceased mom.

  11. I lost my youngest brother suddenly last December, and the fact that his facebook page is still up and running creeps me out a bit. My stepmother did change the name of it so that it is Brent Memorial, but I still think it's strange when I see "Brent is now friends with ___" or "So and SO answered a question about Brent." My stepmother posts there often, notes to the son she can't otherwise communicate with.

    Thanks for this post. It is a thought-provoking one.