‘I Have to Find an Electronic Way to Visit My Friends’ Graves’
Social networking with the dead isn’t unique to MySpace; Facebook also hosts the profiles of deceased members. “Facebook is a site for people to make real world connections,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email. “Since death is a part of the real world, Facebook accommodates users who wish to memorialize loved ones on the site.”
But that wasn’t always the case. Facebook once deleted the profiles of those that it confirmed to be dead, before a public outcry in the wake of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech inspired the company to change its policy. Many students at Virginia Tech, as well as family members of those affected, saw the profiles of those who had died as online memorials. “To erase the page was to throw the memorial away,” John Woods, who spearheaded the campaign for change, wrote in an email.
Facebook now puts the profiles into what it calls a “memorialized state,” in which the company removes many of the profile’s features but retains the user’s pictures and the ability for friends to leave comments. “The primary advantage is that it’s good for those of us who are far away,” Woods, who no longer lives near his old school, wrote. “I have to find an electronic way to visit my friends’ graves.”
Traditional cemeteries serve a practical function, a place to store the dead, but they also serve an abstract purpose as well. “Cemeteries serve as foci for ongoing links with the dead,” Douglas Davies, the author of A Brief History of Death, wrote in an email, “a place where action and not only thought is possible.” In the face of online memorials, could the cemetery’s function as a place of mourning be rendered obsolete?
“Obsolescence — no,” Davies wrote. “Change — yes.”
Internet memorials serve as a digital version of other types of commemorative displays, like roadside shrines that mark the site of an accident. “Something like why people put crosses or Stars of David on the highway,” Jeffreys said. “It’s the same thing.”
Davies compared the online memorial to a digitized version of condolence books. “It is an online development of memorial books that emerged in public contexts of disasters over the last decade or so,” he wrote, “themselves a public version of more personal books at crematoria, especially in UK, themselves a paper version of stone headstones.” In Paris’ Pere-Lachaise cemetery, groupies slather Oscar Wilde’s tombstone in lipstick kisses.
The authors agreed that online memorials don’t fulfill the function of that a physical site does. “You don’t have to have a place, but I think you should have it,” Jeffreys said. “It’s nice to have a location. It’s valuable to have a place.”