Notes From the Virtual Graveyard

Following my post on seeing death through the lens of Twitter, I received a number of responses regarding death and technology in general, and now I can't stop thinking about all the ways that the (semi) permanence of technology interacts with the (relative) impermanence of the human form. While my post dealt primarily with the immediacy of technology as it interacts with the lasting sensation of grief, the responses mainly focused on emotional realities like "I can't bear to delete my (now deceased) friend's email address from my phone" or "I leave my (now deceased) wife's blog up because her friends like to read it." This got me thinking about and noticing a whole new technological phenomenon -- the virtual graveyard.

In fact, when I looked through my own email address book, I have not one, not two, but THREE dead people in there -- people who, when you really think about it, now ONLY exist in cyberspace. It's not rational -- I know I can never email them, and when I accidentally include them in the rare "mail to everyone" moment, their emails come back. I leave them in there, though, as a reminder -- maybe erasing them would be too final for me. Who knows? It's comforting to know they're in there.

I mentioned this to my husband, who upped the ante by saying that he had several now-dead Facebook friends whose pages had been left up, perhaps as a tribute or a way of getting to know the person better. Since those people can't delete their pages (and since, believe me, when someone close to you dies it is impossible to think of everything they might have left behind), I'm assuming those pages (and any blogs the now-deceased might have had) are going to just live on in cyber perpetuity.

Facebook pages, emails, and blogs left behind are one thing, though, and might even be a way for us to keep that person's memory alive. But -- what about the occasional "ghost in the machine?" The creepiest response came from my college roommate, who had a former co-worker, a beautiful, tiny young girl who tragically died in childbirth, and whose email, for some reason, cannot be deleted from the office server. As it turns out, the office has been trying to get rid of this problem for years, to no avail. That girl's name pops up in the "autofill" multiple times per day, continuing to confound the IT people years after her unfortunate demise. Is it because she got fired for having too much morning sickness (true story), and is now haunting the office with by filling in her own email address? Is it a coincidence? Is it that the dead have found a new way to communicate with us, through cyber-communication? Who knows -- maybe "ghost mail" is the next big innovation from Google. Failing that, today's dead are still getting far more air time now than ever before.