Social Media Has Changed the Way We Mourn, For the Worse

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By Quentin Fottrell | 3:45 pm, December 28, 2016

In 2016, death and Facebook appear to go hand-in-hand.

As the deaths of actress Carrie Fisher at aged 60 and singer George Michael at aged 53, among the seemingly high rate of other deaths of beloved public figures in 2016, people have shared their memories and thoughts about the person on social media. Some not so successfully. People are used to public displays of emotion, and online grieving has become an integral part of that.

The deaths of public figures bring social media’s irreverence about death into high relief. Recent tributes to Fisher, Michael, actress Florence Henderson from “The Brady Bunch,” astronaut and former senator John Glenn, and singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen, Prince and David Bowie were trending worldwide after their deaths in 2016. People want to share how they impacted their lives, communication experts say, but many also want to be first to share the news on their own Timeline and become part of a global trending story in the hope of more ‘likes’ and retweets.

People want to share how beloved public figures and celebrities impacted their lives, communication experts say, but many also want to be first to share the news on their own Timeline and become part of a global trending story in the hope of more ‘likes’ and retweets.

And the rush to grieve and embrace these lost stars isn’t always welcome. Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar tweeted “Do you really want to hurt me? I guess you do 2016 #ripboygeorge I was truly one of your biggest fans,” mistakingly thinking (and tweeting) that British pop star Boy George had died instead of George Michael. (She later tweeted that she “heard incorrectly.”) In 2014, Zelda Williams, daughter of the late actor Robin Williams, quit Instagram and Twitter due to “cruel and unnecessary” posts about her father. People were sharing fake photos purported to be of Robin Williams’s body (two Twitter accounts of those involved were suspended).

What’s more, some social commentators observers argue that mourning friends and family online has also gone too far. Once considered outrageous, for some, funeral selfies are passé. Social networking has broken down people’s reluctance to go public to talk, emote and even joke about death. Whether reacting to the death of a celebrity, a high-school friend or a beloved grandmother, people are ready and all too willing to share online.

Social networkers are trampling on cultural taboos by taking and posting open-casket photos of the dead, writing long tributes to friends and loved ones in the past tense (before they’ve passed away) and setting up Facebook photo albums of the trip to a friend’s funeral — including airport check-ins, photos of pre-funeral drinks and, as the piece de resistance, photographs of themselves holding the coffin.

“Technology is pulling down boundaries,” says Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Social media is chipping away at what were pre-established norms and infiltrating more aspects of our culture.” And it’s getting easier. Facebook’s new policy, “Remembering Our Loved Ones,” will memorialize the profiles of deceased users, allowing friends to access their profiles and remember them on birthdays and share photographs. Some studies estimate that there are over 3 million profiles on Facebook that belong to onetime users who’ve since died.

Death and mourning has never been more public, according to two researchers who presented a paper earlier this year at the 11th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle, Wash. Nina Cesare and Jennifer Branstad, University of Washington doctoral students in sociology, analyzed the Twitter of 39 deceased users to see how their followers tweeted about them, and concluded that Twitter was used “to discuss, debate, and even canonize or condemn” them. While Facebook users frequently know each other offline, Twitter users can tweet at anybody, profiles are short, and most accounts are public, they concluded. “That space didn’t really exist before, at least not publicly,” Branstad said.

“Because death is such an extreme dimension of the human experience, we’ve traditionally done our best to ignore it,” says Aram Sinnreich, an associate professor at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, D.C. “There’s been a collision of this typically taboo subject with a communications platform where the number of taboo subjects has vanished.” Nothing is off-limits on Facebook and Twitter, he says, from sharing photographs of your child’s poop with other parents to examine its consistency to posting naked-body shots. And now the final frontier — death — has been subjected to this same no-holds-barred treatment.

But some go too far. Mathew Haigh, a computer-science student at Columbia University, recently discovered that a former co-worker had posted three photos of an open casket. “At first I couldn’t believe what I was looking at,” he says. “I thought it was as tacky as you could get and a little creepy.” Each photo showed the dead man from a different angle, as if it were a posthumous selfie. “If I were dead in an open casket, I wouldn’t want others to see me that way, especially on the Internet,” said Haigh. “It’s a bad way to respect the dead. It makes it more about you than the other person.”

This once-private rite of passage is now public. Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, cites a Facebook post where a man chronicled his journey to a friend’s funeral and included a photo of himself as pallbearer with the caption, “Carrying my mate for last time. Farewell ya crazy b******! Love ya.”

“It’s supposed to be a solemn occasion,” Rosen says. “But this says, ‘Look how great a friend I am.’ He wants to be seen as funny and deemed important enough to be a pallbearer. Most people have narcissistic tendencies, and on social media that part of your personality can take over.”

“I do have problems with posts that prematurely push sick people into the grave by talking about them as if they’ve actually passed,” says Christopher Shea.

With social media, the spotlight has quietly moved from the casket to the mourners, says Fran Walfish, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif. “Where the focus has always been to honor the deceased and grieving, mourning family members, the lines are now blurred,” she says.

The “weirdest” experiences on Facebook happen when people “like” a status update about someone having died in tragic circumstances, adds Rae Mapey, an app developer based in Vancouver Island, B.C. Facebook earlier this year added other emoticons to updates, including a face with a tear drop. Mourners traditionally wrote in guest books at funerals — books that only the family of the deceased were likely to read — but on Facebook they showcase their [unpublished] poetry, she adds: “Cue references to angels, wings and golden gates.”

Of course, many others try to use social media responsibly, whether it’s keeping people abreast of funeral arrangements, thanking people for their support during a difficult time or, in the case of Robin Williams and other public figures, posting tributes to the life and work of the deceased. “I’ve used social media to participate in dedicated groups for grieving friends where there has been little if any grandstanding,” Sinnreich says. And, often, people find out about the death of an old high-school friend through Facebook and then get to share memories on the same platform, he adds. “RIP” hashtags in tweets and on Facebook have also been very effective in creating an immediate universal awareness of the passing of a public figure.

And it has shown some of the best sides of the human spirit too. Last August, 30 people attended the funeral of an elderly woman in New Jersey after Ora Weinbach heard from her father, Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach at the Congregation Shaarey Israel in Montebellow, N.Y., who was officiating, that there would be no mourners. She turned to her Facebook page to rally support. “It was very life changing. It was a very bittersweet moment,” Weinbach told Inside Edition. “There were tears. Anyone passing by would have thought we were burying a loved one.”

When Bryce Weinert lost her grandmother she only shared about it when she left town for the funeral.

In more private circles, social networkers strive to find a balance. “I do have problems with posts that prematurely push sick people into the grave by talking about them as if they’ve actually passed,” says Christopher Shea, who recently earned a master’s degree in social work at New York University. “I lost someone very special to me this past week and wondered if acknowledging the loss was appropriate to post on Facebook, but I did.” Shea was relieved when his deceased friend’s sister posted a note thanking him. “Words of sincere expression, whether spoken or written, carry the ability to remedy great pain,” he says.

And others post about death reluctantly. When Bryce Weinert, assistant director of recruitment at Columbia University, lost her grandmother she only shared about it when she left town for the funeral. “I was trying to keep the balance of being respectful for the family and event, but not looking for obvious sympathy. It was a meaningful event to me.”

If friends heard about it secondhand, she felt they might be shocked or disappointed that they hadn’t heard about it earlier. “It’s a balancing act between being a real person versus the public persona you create through Facebook,” she says.

“New norms will have to be established for what is and isn’t appropriate to share within this space,” the University of Washington’s Nina Cesare, the co-author of the recent American Sociological Association paper. This includes discussing and raising awareness of issues such as mental health, gun control and suicide. “But I think the ability of Twitter to open the mourning community outside of the intimate sphere is a big contribution, and creating this space where people can come together and talk about death is something new.”


This article was originally published on Marketwatch.