Estimates say one million Facebook users are no longer with us — that is, they have died and left behind an active Facebook page. So what do you do with them?
In some cases, those pages become online memorials. In others, the page remains active, leading to the unsettling phenomenon known as the "Facebook ghost;" friends and family continue to recieve notifications of the deceased person's "activity."
(Editor's note: This is part of a full series on death and dying produced by To The Best of Our Knowledge. Several pieces will be featured here on PRI.org in the coming weeks — but you can see all of it at TTBOOK.org)
“People have talked to the deceased for as long as we can remember, it’s just that we never before listened in. Social network memorials have allowed us to do this,” says Candi Cann, a religion professor at Baylor University and the author of "Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century." "It’s not the conversation that’s different, it’s the fact that it is now public.”
The language that people use on social networks is very similar to the language we might hear at a gravesite, Cann says. Mourners speak as though there is an "audience:" the deceased person. On social media “people address the deceased as if he or she is continuing to live and is continuing to be the recipient of these messages.”
Facebook actually has a process though which you can memorialize a page. “You can contact the company and have it shut down, and basically it just becomes frozen in time,” Cann says. But in some cases, the page is not shut down and family and friends simply continue to post messages.
In some ways, this new reality is upending social norms surrounding grief and mourning, Cann says: “Funerals and weddings always reflect the hierarchy of the relationships of that particular person. Now, everyone is equal. Everyone has equal access to the deceased.”
For the individual or family closest to the deceased, this can give rise to some social awkwardness — even anger. Cann tells the story of one woman who, after her husband died, grew quite irritated because many of his friends were posting online condolences to him and not her.
“She felt that she was the one who was grieving the most — shouldn’t they be addressing her?" Cann says. “People weren't sending her letters; rather they were all communing together on her husband 's Facebook page. That was bothersome to her, and rightly so … because her loss, she felt, was the greatest. She was the one who woke up every day and felt his absence first, and went to sleep at night and didn't have him to turn to.”
Another new mourning ritual that has developed is what Cann calls “visual rhetoric” — photos of the deceased with the griever, “which symbolize that person’s right to grieve;" or photos of the deceased in their casket, with the griever by its side. These "funeral selfies" have raised a whole different discussion, Cann says.
Though they may seem new and strange, Cann feels they are “not really out of context.” “Ever since the emergence of photography 150 years ago, death photography has been very popular,” she points out. “In the past, if, say, a child died, the family would take a picture of the child as part of a family portrait and then they would bury the child.”
The difference, of course, is that their photos didn't end up on Twitter or Facebook, she notes.
Still, Cann believes funeral selfies are just “a kind of replication of the arm band or the mourning clothing. They express a desire to be recognized as someone who is grieving … These may be new technologies, but I think they're actually just a resurfacing of old forms of grieving.”