An Online Generation Redefines Mourning
Expressions of grief take on many public forms in the digital age.
By Hannah Seligson, New York Times (March 21, 2014)
It was inevitable, I suppose. At a certain point early 21st-century humans would begin doing things with computer technology that their long lost late 20th-century cousins did roughly twenty years earlier.
And lo, it has come to pass with death and the internet.
The New York Times has a Fashion & Style feature on how the kids are using the world wide web to discuss death, loss, the end-of-life, grieving, etc.
1.) Anytime the Grey Lady describes something as fashionable then it’s almost certainly dead. Irony of ironies, given the article’s subject.
3.) Using the internet, the web, computers, digital technology, communication technology writ large to discuss death, loss, the end-of-life, grieving, etc. is not new. Indeed, humans have been using the interweb to discuss death since the early days of html and Netscape.
We need to go back in time now, to a long-forgotten-about age when people still said Information Superhighway without irony or smirking. That’s right, we’re headed back to the mid-1990s.
It is also important to point out that everything happening in the late 20th-century also built on technology used during the 19th-century (e.g., telegraph communication, photography, rail transport, etc.) but I’ll stick with the 1990′s for now.
In 1996, a television show called the Internet Cafe began a run on American Public Television. The programme was later re-named the Net Cafe and it lasted until 2002. Think of it as the paleo-YouTube.
Two years into the Internet Cafe’s existence, on June 26, 1998 (historical aside: Bill Clinton wouldn’t be impeached until December 19, 1998 but most television footage was about the Starr Report), it aired a programme called Grim Reaper Web Sites.
As the title suggests, the entire show examines how people are using the world wide web to discuss a long list of death topics and issues. My particular favourite is the guy who creates a memorial website for Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia.
The moral of our time-traveling tale is this: We humans began using the internet and web as soon as we could to discuss death. Why? Because that’s what we do with all communication technology. The technology will always change but death itself remains predictably guaranteed and discussed.
But don’t take my word for it, you can WATCH this episode of the Internet Cafe because of the always wonderful Internet Archive.
Here is a direct link to the Grim Reaper programme.
I also embedded the show at the bottom of the page.
The 1990′s live dude.
And if you’re interested in the history (both old and new) of death and technology then check out Death Ref’s Death + Technology page.
I’ll be giving a talk on these death technology issues (and other things) at the upcoming UK Death Salon.
One final point. In another twenty or thirty years I firmly believe that an intrepid reporter for the New York Times will write an article about whatever technology exists at that time (our computer overlords, most likely) and how the kids are using it to discuss death.
The rest will be silence.
Westboro Baptist Church Founder Fred Phelps Dies Aged 84
Reverend started Kansas church that gained intense notoriety for its anti-gay protests and pickets at funerals of US soldiers
Jon Swaine, The Guardian (March 20, 2014)
Fred Phelps died earlier today. He led (until recently it seems, but the details are murky) the Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC gained international attention (and condemnation) for its protests at funerals for dead soldiers. It was also known for its ‘God Hates Fags’ signs.
We here at the Death Reference Desk began covering Phelps and the WBC in 2009. You can read all of those posts here.
Am I Going To Die This Year? A Mathematical Puzzle
Robert Krulwich, Radiolab (January 08, 2014)
Radiolab co-host, Robert Krulwich, posted a fascinating piece on a mathematical approach to determining when a person might die. Krulwich explains how he first picked up this topic:
A few years ago, physicist Brian Skinner asked himself: What are the odds I will die in the next year? He was 25. What got him wondering about this, I have no idea, but, hey, it’s something everybody asks. When I can’t wedge my dental floss between my two front teeth, I ask it, too. So Brian looked up the answer — there are tables for this kind of thing — and what he discovered is interesting. Very interesting. Even mysterious.
It turns out that a fascinating 8-year rule emerges for most human lifespans. I will let you read all about it.
Tick-Tock goes the clock.
And welcome to 2014.
Merry Christmas to all of our lovely Death Reference Desk Readers.
And remember to keep those Christmas Trees from spontaneously combusting.
Ho ho ho.
IMBD (December 22, 2013)
Do not read this Death Ref post if you have not seen the film Gravity and would rather not read about the plot before seeing it.
You have been warned.
After much talking and planning, I finally saw the movie Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Almost all of the reviews I’ve read or heard focused on Gravity’s use of 3D effects (which are very well done) and the somewhat existential-metaphysical-slightly New Agey-religious language used by Bullock’s character Ryan Stone.
What very few people seem to realise, I think, is that Gravity is a film about a dead child and parent grieving over the unexpected death of that child. In this case, it’s Bullock’s character and her daughter who accidentally died while playing tag at school.
It is also a film about living people talking to the dead and this is something that both secular and religious people do (whether they admit it or not) on a fairly regular basis. It’s completely normal and part of what is often referred to as a Continuing Bond after a person dies.
Case in point, near the end of the film George Clooney’s character Matt Kowalski suddenly reappears even though it’s clear that he must be dead. Bullock and Clooney have a conversation about how to get back to earth, which pulls Bullock’s character from choosing to die and instead motivates here to return home. The scene concludes with Clooney’s sudden disappearance and Bullock asking him to say hello to her dead daughter.
Sure sure, the world’s entire fleet of space stations and ships are ripped apart by space debris during the film and there’s a survival story involved but it’s just the spectacle that underscores the dead child narrative. I also get the sense that some of the perceived neo-Theological/New Age Christian critiques come from the scene where Bullock speaks to the dead Clooney about the dead daughter. Again, I didn’t see that as particularly religious rather it was a grieving parent asking a friend to check in on a beloved child.
The real genius of Gravity’s meditation on life and death is this: I firmly believe Bullock’s character Ryan Stone dies in the moments before speaking with the dead Matt Kowalski and that the film concludes with her entering a secular afterlife.
Of a kind.