Should we, as a society, accept that the internet has a place in the way we process grief, take care of the dead and memorialize loved ones?
As the internet connects us more and more closely with information, all aspects of modern life have an online presence. But what about death? What role does digital space play in our deaths, and how much of our deaths belongs online?
There are a number of things that happen when someone passes away. There are immediate, pressing, and long-term tasks for those who are planning a loved one's death care arrangements, and the timing of these tasks affects the appropriateness of sharing it online. In general, long-term memorialization can and should take place online, whereas most of the immediate needs should be kept private to those who are planning the funeral.
Planning Our Deaths Online
Much of the funeral planning industry is conducted online nowadays. Those who preplan their funeral arrangements can meet with a funeral director to discuss their wishes, but oftentimes they read about available options online. For many, it's important to hear a personalized explanation of how arrangements are made after death from a licensed funeral director. But, when reflecting on our own deaths, many also prefer privacy, and the space to deeply consider our options.
Even those who are comfortable with the idea of their own eventual death may find the funeral planning process disturbing. It's one thing to be confident in your beliefs and practical about funeral arrangements, but it's another to realize that the exact floral arrangement you are selecting will be viewed by your closest loved ones near your body during your visitation. These moments are a natural part of reflecting on our own deaths.
Being able to make these arrangements from the comfort of your own home, with privacy, emotional support, and space to make meaningful decisions, is one advantage to the death care industry's expansion into the digital realm.
Announcing a Death Online
When a death has occurred, it's important to notify people who are connected to the deceased person. With the technology to share information at the touch of a button, many people are tempted to break the bad news of a death to loved ones via social media or email. This option is appealing for those who are still dealing with the shock and early denial of a grief reaction because it is an impersonal method of sharing the news.
Notifying others of a death is not an enjoyable experience, so some people want to avoid the heartbreaking face-to-face moment not just once, but multiple times. Though the pain of having to relive the loss each time you notify someone is great, it's not appropriate to announce a death over email or social media — at least not at first.
There is a hierarchy of grief, which means certain people in a family or community should be given special care when dealing with them in relation to a loss. This is particularly important when notifying people of a loss. Immediate family members, best friends, good friends, and daily contacts should be notified as soon as is practical. News of a death is best delivered in person or in a telephone call. Never text, email, or leave in a voicemail the news of a death if there is a way to get a more personal connection.
Posting about a death on social media is not a good way to notify people of a death. But that doesn't mean it's completely off limits. If a few days have passed since the death, and all of those who were closest to the deceased person have been personally notified, it's acceptable to share the loss with your network. If you do this, it's important to write your post carefully. Keep in mind that people who are connected to the deceased person may be reading about the death while at work, school, en route to an event, or while they are alone. Your words will reach folks wherever they happen to be when they see it in their feeds, so be compassionate and gentle. If in doubt, avoid posting about the death on social media.
Funerals and the Internet
Bringing digital connectedness into a funeral brings with it the chance of unintentionally disrespecting someone. A funeral is a somber event with mourners, one or more eulogists, handling of bodily remains, and ritual. It's uncomfortable, and, for some, irreverent, to photograph or record a memorial service, unless requested by the hosting family.
For example, funeral selfies are an odd, tasteless fad in which mourners take selfies during a memorial service. This issue highlights the problems with being hyper-connected, and so reliant on our digital lives that we become disconnected from the here and now. It's rude to use your phone or other device during a funeral unless it's required for your personal accessibility or to assist with the funeral. In general, keep photos, stories, and family drama from the funeral off the internet, and stay in the moment with those who share your grief.
Some funerals live stream the memorial services in order to include those in the family or community who are unable to attend the funeral in person, like those who have mobility issues or live far away. This is one way that connectedness can help, not hinder, us in our memorialization of the dead.
Creating an obituary or digital memorial as an enduring tribute to a loved one who has passed is a way of keeping their memory alive. This can be done by a close loved one or trusted representative immediately following a death.
Online obituaries are a much more legitimate and respectful way of announcing a death online, compared to posting about the death on social media. One of the reasons for this is that online obituaries are first verified as real deaths by the newspaper or publisher prior to being posted online. This helps readers know that the story they are reading online is true. These digital memorials also act as a central location for visiting the life story, sharing memories with other mourners, and collecting photos of the deceased person. This memorial can then be shared on social media, but in a more appropriate and trustworthy manner.
In the past, openly discussing grief and emotions has been somewhat taboo. Indeed, many people find discussing death and its emotional aftermath to be overwhelming and even irreverent. However, open dialogue about these tough and universal experiences is valuable to moving on from grief with strength.
Because discussing death can be such an obstacle for many people, online grief support groups are a great way to overcome troubling emotions. You can connect with others on Facebook and other social media websites, as well as through other more grief-specific channels like Grief In Common, which is just one support network for the bereaved of the many that are available.
Digital avenues of expressing grief are very valuable to the recently bereaved. Not only can you find a community of people who are going through similar struggles with loss, but you can avoid overburdening your immediate support network. For many people, a mix of in-person and online support is a good balance when seeking bereavement support.
Sometimes Death Does Belong Online
Though there are many aspects of death care and memorialization that can be respectfully conducted online, like funeral planning, obituaries, and the sharing of memories, death doesn't always belong online. It's important to be tactful and considerate when accessing the internet for the purposes of remembering someone who has passed, particularly when the death is fresh and others might not yet know of the tragedy.