Does death exist online?

When someone we knows dies there are certain rituals we all observe; we attend a funeral and we try to say goodbye, but do we need to take part in those rituals if we can live forever online

Most people lead a double life nowadays: one in the physical, real world and one online. In the former, limited by deteriorating skin and bones, at some point we will all cease to exist, but do our online selves ever really die?

Not wanting to delve too deep into stoner philosophy, but with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and a litany of other social media apps and websites, does anyone really cease to exist and do we need to grieve if we still have an almost palpable presence to communicate with? In the past anyone who continued to have contact with the dead would have been ostracised and recommended therapy, but now is it really so crazy that people continue to message Facebook accounts after loved ones have passed away?

“For something like Facebook people’s responses have been ‘when I sit on a park bench and I say a prayer and I talk to her, I don’t know if she hears me, but when I write to her on Facebook she hears me. I know it’s not logical, but that’s how it feels’,” says Stacey Pitsillides, lecturer in Design in the Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts at the University of Greenwich.

But taking death online hasn’t just allowed people to maintain bonds forged in life, it has also created a legitimate space for people who might not be comfortable grieving in the real world. For example, people who suffer miscarriages or people with extramarital partners can find comfort in an online community of people going through the same things as them.

Message me when I’m gone

Our online presences have in some ways disrupted death. Age-old rituals and traditions no longer serve as a full stop at the end of a life well lived; we can think about ourselves as having a continued relationship with people that have died. This phenomenon may have been brought to the Western world by virtue of lingering digital existences, but as Hannah Rumble, member of the General Council for the Association for the Study of Death and Society (ASDS) and the editorial board for the academic journal Mortality, explains it has long been a part of the grieving process in other parts of the world.

“There is this new thing that people do, which is talking to the dead,” says Rumble.  “It follows a lot of cultures and traditions in Japan and Africa and in other places where actually talking to the dead as ancestors and figuring out what their place is in your life is quite an important thing – that kind of negotiation of actually I want to continue a relationship with you and not let go of it.”

Thanks to the digital world, we can see new rituals around death being constructed, and we are moving beyond traditional right and wrong ways of grieving. “People are making up their own rituals and the fact that these things are appearing online is quite good for people to begin to create the kind of space that allows them to feel comfortable enough to say in the middle of their friendship group, ‘I miss you and I wish you were back here’,” says Rumble.

At the wake

Whether you believe continuing relationships online after death is a good or bad thing, most people would agree that they have no right to impinge on others’ chosen method of grieving. Arguing that it’s a good idea to almost voyeuristically thrust yourself into the midst of others’ grief takes another level of apologist though. But Andréia Martins, journalist, anthropologist and PhD student at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society, argues just that. She explains that in her native Brazil one of the most important rituals following a death is the wake, and Martins is an administrator for a group of Facebook users who tune into strangers’ virtual wakes.

“On a Sunday afternoon they [the viewers] can be at their homes in front of their computers watching the virtual wake of a stranger and they will debate what they’re seeing,” says Martins. “They can make comments about trivial things like the amount of people in the room or the amount of flowers, if there are people crying, but they will also share their own experiences of death and dying, so it can be quite a therapeutic thing to do.”

Martins says she has identified three reasons why people would want to be virtually present at a wake organised for someone they don’t know. Firstly, curiosity draws people in; some people want to be aware of how friends and family behave at a wake. Secondly, if some young people weren’t allowed to attend a funeral for a family member they take the opportunity virtual wakes present to be involved in such a peculiar event, and, thirdly, if someone has recently lost a family person or a friend they may want to see others going through the same experience.

For some virtual wakes may be a morbid experience, but in Martins eyes – and I’m sure to their viewers as well – they have contributed to people having a “nicer relationship with death”.

The afterlife

What people who continue to message Facebook accounts, once their family and friends have passed away, have stumbled upon is that when we die we leave behind vast digital archives that contain our personalities, our fears, our interests and our desires. These archives are created incrementally from information that appears ephemeral, but adds up to us, a complete reproduction of our character. It’s not outrageous then that people would use that information to bring people back from the dead.

This idea has already been explored in fiction. In the sci-fi drama series Black Mirror, a young woman named Martha subscribes to a service that uses her deceased fiancé’s social media accounts to create a digital avatar capable of mimicing his personality. And this has already moved from fiction into real life; a Russian woman Eugenia Kuyda used artificial intelligence to bring back her friend Roman Mazurenko. The bot Kuyda created was able to impersonate Mazurenko and interact with people in text form. While it only represented a shadow of the real man, some people found it therapeutic.

Not everyone will be comfortable communicating with people once they have died, but soon enough everyone may have to ask themselves the question: if you have a chance to keep hold of your loved ones, albeit in another form, would you take it?

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