Osama Bin Laden's death was tweeted 2.2 million times in the first few hours. But it doesn't take supervillain status for a death to make news on a social media network.
Last year when my neighbor was dying, her husband set up a webpage on CaringBridge. While his wife slept or received treatments, David kept a blog about her condition for their family, friends, church and neighbors. Even though we didn't see him for weeks because he stayed at her bedside, we all went through the ups and downs with him until his wife passed on. He wasn't alone in his vigil. The outpouring of support and care was instantaneous and heartfelt.
My friend's family used Facebook last week to follow her sister-in-law's final days in a long battle with cancer. "From a positive perspective," Joanne said, "it was a huge relief for the family. They were relieved of the burden of making individual phone calls and reliving the death a call at a time." But when the same thing happened recently in her brother-in-law's family, Joanne said it didn't go so well. "Unfortunately, some people found out about the death via Facebook, which was most regrettable."
From the ICU to the graveyard, our dying rituals have gone electronic. In addition to communicating a person's final days to their personal network, the internet has made group mourning and even webcast funerals possible.
When my brother died, my family had to admit that his life had only fully existed in cyberspace. He had been well-networked, with friends all over the United States -- probably even the world -- and there was no way to reach them all or to have them in one place. Once word got out on his Facebook page, though, his friends self-organized and used the space to conduct a virtual funeral. They left him messages, shared stories and posted their favorite photos. They mourned him together in a way they would not have been able to with a traditional funeral.
Got a network that's bigger than Facebook? Personalized memorial websites like the ones on Legacy.com are just one service option for families and friends of the dying or recently departed. There are commercial and non-profit sites, religious, secular, general and loss-specific sites. All of them offer a combination of services and resources that may also include online support groups and expert blogs. You can also find resources like books and CDs, Q&A on protocol, obituary how-to, death records and memorial planning guides.
Before the internet made grief assistance a virtual marketplace, funeral homes were the go-to source for entire communities. To keep up with internet offerings, many now do more than carry ten different types of caskets. They may offer their own virtual memorial sites and other services like funeral webcasting.
Funeral webcasting began in 2002 to give the general public access to the death rituals of public figures and social icons. These days, an estimated 30% of all funeral homes offer live and on-demand funeral web-streaming and you don't have to be famous to do it. Attending a funeral on the web is economical, of course. But it also allows those who live far away, have to work or care for the young or older ones, or who are infirmed themselves, to pay their last respects in the comfort and privacy of their own homes.
What else is on the horizon? Use your imagination. How long it will take before pre-need websites spring up? Just as funeral homes encourage us to make and pay for our funerals before we need them, they might encourage us to prepare virtual mausoleums. Loved ones might visit our website and see our favorite photos, private messages and links to our favorite online information or writings. The Hong Kong government has recently encouraged a similar kind of online grave visitation to cut down on cemetery traffic and the maintenance. After logging in, citizens can even send the deceased virtual versions of the traditional Chinese offerings to the dead, such as flowers, pigs, chickens and money. There is no cost and the offerings don't have to be cleaned up.
There are downsides to death in cyberspace, of course. First, there's the protocol issue my friend referred to. Surviving loved ones still expect a personal phone call not a mass email. And there's loss of the intimacy that both allows and results from sharing our fears and sorrows. There's no one to hug you when you cry online. Another downside is that open sites for eulogizing the deceased give opportunity to those who really didn't like the person to post negative remarks. And finally, broadcasting a family's grief on the internet is viewed by some as insensitive or sensational. While easily accepted by those of us who use the internet for just about everything else, it's especially difficult to get buy-in from traditional folks and the older crowd. The last thing any of us need in our time of sorrow is family conflict.
Despite the downsides, I think it's a very good thing that social media has changed the way we grieve as a community. So many of us look for excuses not to do so at all, allowing our convenience and happiness priority over the rituals that, while difficult, bond families and friends and ultimately define our humanity. Even though a video screen will never replace the intimate, human experience of a hospital visit or memorial service, it does put a patch on the tears in a family's fabric that result from siblings, cousins and grandchildren living far away from the family center. It gives us another avenue to show we care.
Janice M. Van Dyck is author of Finding Frances, a novel about dying in the 21st century. She believes that we cannot really understand life until we come to terms with death.