Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pocket Cemeteries

This Blog Was Written by
Krista Amira Calvo

Where do we go when we die? 
The profusion of theories and ideologies about the afterlife is overwhelming, and every culture has its own language to discuss the great beyond. But what about our online selves? The fate of our digital persona isn’t up for debate. When we die these avatars of ourselves continue to exist on social media platforms, our long living etsy accounts and through our subscriptions to our publications of choice. All of these things are telling of who we are, and they continue to communicate with the online world long after we have died.
Facebook has recently made a very sensitive option available to the dead and the dying, a memorialization page for the deceased. This option must be utilized before one’s death to guarantee your page will reflect the best of who you were as a living and breathing being. Family members are given agency over these pages, having ownership to delete any language from your page that did not illuminate you in the best of lights. But access to these accounts is not always given in time, particularly in the instance of sudden death, and although you can report a page that needs to be memorialized, the social media accounts of the dead become frozen in time, a literary snapshot of a life lost.

Several months ago I became interested in this subject after falling into a facebook wormhole. I came across a repost from a friend of a missing person. Naturally, I was intrigued and clicked the link. After about half an hour of perusing, I stumbled across the missing person’s page. 

What I had failed to note was the date on the search for this person; it had already been a week. What I found instead was an account of the final days of this person’s life, the most recent and most visible post being his digital suicide note. Upon further investigation, I was able to figure out why this young man had taken his own life, and it occured to me that social media has made us so comfortable sharing our thoughts and ideas that this act didn’t seem taboo to anyone who, a week later, continued to comment under his post. It was like looking at a digital cemetery where friends and family came to pay their respects, not to a grave, but to the physical words he had written. Their final memories of him were not images or feelings burned into their brains, but rather the image of words on a smartphone screen. As I write this, I can not remember this young man’s face. Instead, I see his status in Lucida Grande, devoid of emojis and baren of likes. 
  This act also opens the door to further understanding of the language of grief, which has a very limited lexicon. Expressing one’s grief on the spot can be near impossible, and the bereaved often struggle to find the words to describe their loss. But being able to exercise that grief in a platform where one has time to consider what they want to convey can allow for more expressive, cohesive and controlled condolences, and when you are not the only social media ‘friend’ communicating sadness, it becomes easier to be vulnerable.  “The reality, of course, is that language will never truly be able to capture the depths of our pain or the complexity of our experience.”

A cell phone that was retrieved from Ground Zero
 Newseum in Washington, DC. Picture: AFPSource:AF

More accounts like this exist on the web than I care to imagine, and in the digital age some companies have developed specifically to deal with your internet directives. Traditionally, funeral homes, lawyers and grief counselors aided you in preparing your possessions for dispersion in the event of your death.  Digital Death, a small business aimed to do just this, has coined the term digital mourning. This idea suggests that the process of grief has evolved, as “The society that lives online, will mourn online. From maintaining a Facebook page to formal online memorials, we are also interested in how the digital age is transforming our mourning practices.” This means that the language of grief has also evolved. Our memorials for others not only exist online, but also in our pockets. Saved texts from dead loved ones and their very last status post, their last comment on your brunch photo and their contact information all exist in your handheld device. Thus, immortalization no longer comes in the form of old worn out photos, but rather in digital text, in abbreviated sentences, acronyms and the rest of the modern text lexicon. 

The language of text in itself, particularly in respect to emojis, can alter the way one remembers the dead. This language, called digital  textspeak by the Oxford Dictionary, “. . . preserve at least an echo of pictorial relationships between the symbol and the thing it represents.” This statement also echoes the idea of the pocket cemetery; our phones too preserve an echo of pictorial relationships between the messages from the dead in our iMessage and the being that they actually represent. Like social media, utilizing emojis can help us cast shadow over our true selves and our true intentions. This begs the question, are our digital graveyards, our pocket cemeteries, accurate representations of our living selves? Or are they just us, through a filter, a filter that is spurring the evolution of the language of grief and our relationship with death?


 What is Your Grief - The Language of Grief, 2017.    https://whatsyourgrief.com/the-language-of-grief/
  Digital Death - Digital Mourning, 2017. http://www.digitaldeath.com/digital-death/

  Oxford Living Dictionaries - Is Emoji a Type of Language?, 2015. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/emoji-language