Friday, February 13, 2015

Social Networking Sites and the Way Americans Do Death: My Notes with Questions

I wonder if this has happened to anyone besides me. First, I happened to notice a posting pop up on Facebook last year from the Facebook feed of a friend in Florida from whom I hadn't heard in some time. 

The comment was curious. It wasn't made by my friend Debbie. It was being made by someone else on her Facebook wall. And it suggested to me that Debbie had died, and I hadn't heard of her death.

After I had read the comment, I visited her Facebook page and discovered that, as I had feared, my friend had died some months before I had seen that Facebook comment, and I hadn't known that this had happened. Steve and I had had lunch with her on a whirlwind trip to Florida the year before, when I was called to Daytona Beach to give testimony in a trial there.

We had known from that visit that Debbie was battling cancer. We had suspected that the prognosis was more serious than she was indicating to us. So her death was in some ways not a surprise. But the way in which I received news of it was something of a shock.

There was her Facebook page, still up and running — as it is today as I type this. With people continuing to leave remembrances of her and post photos of her months after she has died . . . . 

And then yesterday, this happens: I notice in my Facebook feed a message from a sister of one of my Facebook friends, a distant cousin of mine with whom I've exchanged family information in the past, a comment stating that she misses and remembers her brother. Once again, I click to the Facebook page of this friend and discover that he has died.

I check the feed of our messages back and forth, and discover that about a month after Brian and I had last messaged each other, he reported on Facebook that he was having severe angina and kidney problems. And within days after that, his family members had posted information about his death and funeral on his Facebook page.

As with my friend Debbie, Brian's Facebook page remains active and people continue to post their remembrances of him there, pictures of him, messages about how much he meant to them.

Facebook is changing how we do death, it seems to me. In the case of my friend Debbie, I've been unable to find any information about her death other than on her Facebook page. When I google for obituaries, I find none anywhere online. I don't think I'd have known of her death if I had not happened to see that message in my Facebook feed which suggested to me that she had died.

Had I been monitoring my feed carefully at the time of her death (and the same goes for Brian's death), I would have seen the news then, of course. But, for one reason or another summed up as daily life, I go long periods without scrolling through every last message that comes across my Facebook page on any given day. I have nearly 300 Facebook friends, and I simply can't keep up, though I do try.

It's also interesting to me to note the way in which two Facebook pages connected to mine have now become ongoing memory books for friends who are gone. The choice of the family members of these friends to keep their Facebook pages active allows for a kind of spontaneous, informal sharing of memories, photos, and so forth, that those leave-your-note-for-the-family operations at funeral home sites don't really permit. Those are also usually deactivated within a certain period following the death of a person, so that it becomes impossible to leave such messages after the memory book page is closed.

Have any of you had similar experiences with social networking sites and news of the deaths of family members or friends, I wonder? And if so, what do you think about the way in which these sites appear to be changing how we share news of deaths and how we memorialize loved ones? I'd be interested to hear.

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