What happens to a facebook page when its creator dies? And are our ways of mourning changing?
From memorial bumper stickers and t-shirts, to personalised coffins and Facebook ‘shrines’, last month’s International Conference on Death, Dying and Disposal at The Open University hosted a range of soon-to-be-published research on newer mourning rituals.
An estimated 30 million Facebook profiles belong to people who have died. Facebook’s policy is to turn the profiles into a memorial page, where people can still post, unless their family requests the page’s removal. Just as we use the site to celebrate our successes, so we also sometimes use it to mourn our losses.
Dr Elaine Kaskett, counselling psychologist from Regent’s College, and specialist in grieving (nominative determinism in action), says Facebook shrines help: “Grieving involves oscillating between being aware of loss and getting back into regular life. Facebook is really well set up for that. You can access the person’s memory and then flick back to the land of the living.”
Dr Kaskett reviewed nearly 1000 posts on memorial facebook sites and interviewed facebook users. She found that 70% of people posting write as if the person is still able to read it. Regardless of religious background, there is a trend to feel like facebook is still a means of communicating after death. “There’s an assumption in this digital age that people receive messages immediately,” Dr Kaskett said. “When the person dies, if you are used to communicating with them in that way, you carry on. It raises the question of how people imagine an afterlife: if it’s a vision of people logging into a cybercafé in heaven.”
Dr Kaskett thinks that for many, the shrines feel more real and relevant than visiting a grave: “I think it’s because the profile is created by both the person and their friends, so you can look through and see shared jokes, photos of you together. It makes people feel connected.”
Outside of cyber-space, other rituals are evolving. John Gill, Director of Crazy Coffins, started making unusually shaped coffins 15 years ago in response to public demand. Examples have included a corkscrew for a fine wine merchant and a plane with detachable wings. “Canal boats are popular,” said Mr Gill, “Our first customer was a lady who wanted a coffin in the shape of a Red Arrows aeroplane.” Mr Gill thinks we are growing more thoughtful about death: “We’re all thinking about it nowadays. 30 years ago people just slid under the carpet.” Mr Gill thought the coffins might help people to grieve: “It’s a way of expressing the value that was attached to that life.”
Isabel Russo, Head of Ceremonies at the British Humanist Association, thinks that funerals are becoming more open: “Even in five years I’ve seen a change. Previously it was all ‘don’t talk about death’, with a black car and hushed tones. Now there are brighter colours, chances to have tea, to discuss. Funerals are more of a celebration with people encouraged to express themselves.” Ms Russo thought the shift was positive: “it’s a really exciting time. People are being allowed to articulate their feelings. It’s when we can’t talk that we get stuck and stagnate.”
Dr Candi Cann, social scientist from Baylor University in the US, disagrees: “I don’t think we’re more open,” she said “I think mourning’s gone underground. There’s less bereavement leave or mourning clothing, but people still want to be recognised as bereaved.” Dr Cann’s research describes a trend in the US for commemorative car bumper stickers and t-shirts with pictures of lost loved ones or memorial slogans. Dr Cann thinks there is a move towards more individual forms of mourning in the US, as traditions are left behind.
Although the new rituals might be surprising in their content, the idea of using newer technologies to explore and express loss is unsurprising. We will all have losses in our lives, of possessions, of roles, but most significantly of people we have loved. Loss is a basic human experience which people have tried to make sense of for centuries. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, wrote his ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in exploration of the loss of loved ones and what can happen if this becomes all encompassing, with no room left for anything else. John Bowlby, developmental psychologist, thought that the way we experience attachment to others and loss of them in childhood could form our characters and relationships for years to come. The process of coping with a loss often involves talking it through with others, whether in a therapeutic or a friendly setting. Why wouldn’t we use newer social media or other creative forms of expression to do this too?
For those who want a place to consider mortality in the company of others, ‘Death Cafes’ are also on the rise. Started by a Swiss sociologist, the first UK Death Café came over to London in 2011, and they are still spreading. These cafés aim to give people the opportunity to discuss death whilst making the most out of being alive. As Ms Russo of the British Humanist Association said: “the more death can become part of life on a day-to-day level, the richer a life you can lead.”