At one time, people were laid to rest and considered to have passed on and were gone forever. But now it seems, death is not just forever for the person who has died, but for all of us, since honoring the dead and mourning has gone online.
I just read an intriguing article about this in the March 1, 2010 issue of Newsweek – “R.I.P. on Facebook” by Lisa Miller, in which she discusses the death of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who died a suicide at 40 https://www.tragedyinfo.com/francis-mossman-death-obituary-francis-mossman-cause-of-death/. In the first week, over 80,000 people became fans of him on a Facebook site, and people sent in their messages of grief.
This article got me thinking about how death has become very public and sometimes international in our global age, where we are linked together by the Internet. This end of life passage is so different from the way death used to be acknowledged. At one time, it was a family or local community affair, where people used to gather to watch the burial or have a memorial service of some sort. In some cultures, including the U.S., for most people this rite of passage was a somber, teary affair carried out in a church or funeral parlor. In other cultures, there was a symbolic ceremony of passing from one state to another, such as sending a chieftain warrior out on a boat in Viking culture and then burning it, or imagining a boatman taking a dead person across the river Styx in ancient Greek mythology. In still others, a death was a time for remembering and revelry, such as the Irish wake. But importantly, it was a time for people, who usually had some personal connection to the deceased, to come together, re-forge bonds of kinship and community, and feel a sense of communal support in acknowledging and expressing grief.
But today, increasingly, death has been acknowledged impersonally and now virtually. I think a watershed of sorts was breached in 2005, when one funeral home – the Junior Funeral Home in Pensacola, Florida, which is no longer in operation — announced the first drive-in funeral ceremony. People could simply drive through, much like going to a drive-in, and they didn’t even have to get out of their cars. They could just view the deceased, like going through to check out the menu in McDonald’s and then drive away.
Still another milestone in the last few decades is the outpouring of public grief for high-profile and celebrity deaths. In the 1960s, there was the long period of national mourning for JFK, shot in 1963, and for his brother Robert Kennedy, shot in 1968. The mourning of Princess Diana after her death in a controversial auto accident in August 1997 also struck a popular nerve, and her death scene was played over and over on national TV. Meanwhile, millions of people worldwide grieved, many of them sending offerings or placing tokens of their bereavement at the gates of the royal palace and her family home. In a similar vein, Elvis became more of a celebrity after his death in August 1977, and three decades later, the crowds visiting Graceland, once his home in Memphis, are larger than ever.
Now in the last few months, it seems we have hit a new way of collectively mourning all over the world, as in the death of Michael Jackson in June 2009, and most recently Alexander McQueen. As long as the deceased has been of sufficient note – or a part of an incident that has gotten national or international attention, such as being a victim of Columbine, people are putting up websites, Facebook pages, or other online sites for mourning and honoring the memory of that person or group of people. And this grieving and paying homage can now go on forever, since a website can be maintained in perpetuity and recently Facebook changed its policy of taking down the page of a person who has died. So that page can stay up there forever, unless the person’s family takes it down.