I haven’t visited my dad’s grave since I helped — per religious custom — to spade the dirt back into it. It’s in Upstate New York, about three hours north of the City. Since his death, ten years ago, I’ve made several trips to Manhattan, but these stays were so brief, and undertaken on such a shoestring budget, that to push farther always seemed too ambitious a project.
My mother, from what I can tell, manages a visit to her parents’ grave every few years — they lie in Trenton, New Jersey, the city of her birth, only a township or two away from where her surviving older relatives live. Her Florida-based siblings? I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. (They read the blog, so they’re welcome to speak for themselves if they’d like to.) But I’m guessing it’s been a while. Modern life, with its relocations and dislocations, can leave the dead very lonesome.
Facebook may change that. For those who want one, social media has created a permanent Dia de Los Muertes, where the living and the dead mingle freely. In 2009, Facebook rolled out its new “Memorial Mode.” When a Facebook user dies, his or her next-of-kin submits a request that the account be “memorialized.” The decedent’s page gets a new prefix: “In Memory,” or “In Memoriam.” Contact information is removed, and privacy settings are adjusted to prevent anyone but confirmed friends from viewing the page, or even from finding it in search. On Facebook, death means the ultimate status change.
Since all of my Facebook friends are alive — keyne hora! — I’ve yet to see a page memorialized. However, Facebook offers other ways to commemorate the dearly departed. Survivors will sometimes turn a group page, or even a business page, into a memorial. I checked several of these and found them both tasteful and touching. Page members post messages frequently, often addressing them directly to the deceased loved one; unlike flowers, the messages don’t wilt. The memberships in these groups range from the hundreds to the thousands — many more people than financial or logistical realities could bring to a gravesite or funeral service. On Facebook, anyone can be mourned like a pharaoh or a pope.
Novelist Zadie Smith doesn’t care for e-mourning. In her essay “Generation Why,” she calls it just one more way in which social media distort the meaning of personhood. Seeing schmaltzy messages posted on the walls of murdered British teens — her example: “Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX” — makes Smith wonder whether the mourners “genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?”
To be sure, in her framing of the question, there’s a snottiness that should not pass unchallenged. Cambridge grad Smith wonders whether mispelled or abbreviated words signal a profound cognitive deficiency on the part of the writer. When she’s feeling generous, she reminds herself, “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” Well, ASU grad Lindenman finds the language no less adequate than “Alas, poor Yorick…Here hung those lips I kissed I know not how oft.” The words “missin” and “hopin” imply a sharp awareness that the owner of the profile won’t be posting updates anytime soon.
For that matter, what makes Smith so certain the contact was only virtual? Speaking for myself, it’s true that about half of my Facebook friends are readers — to whom, judging by my work, I might as well be dead already — but the other half are family members, real-time friends, and real-life acquaintances. Our contact may not be frequent or intimate, but if I were to kick the bucket, I’d expect them to take notice. For them to weep or sit shiva would be a little too much to ask; a respectful message on my memorial page would be just enough.
The real question is: if Facebook does prolong the social existence of those who have expired physically, would it really be such a bad thing? To a believing Catholic, not at all. We spend half our time talking to dead people, sometimes about other dead people — “St. Christina the Astonishing, please intercede to get my husband out of Purgatory. I just know he hates it there.” Between statues, prayer cards, feast days, parishes and parochial schools named in their honor — and, in Italy, Lux Vide hagiopics — the saints in the Church Triumphant have a very real social existence. Popping into a church in some European country or other, a friend of mine was surprised to run across saintly relics that she knew belonged in a far-off basilica. Turned out they were touring. Like a rock star. A live rock star.
In an interview with Ross Andersen of the Atlantic, Australian philosopher Patrick Stokes explains that Facebook’s spreading of Catholic-style social eternity benefits the bereaved. Recalling how the sister of a soldier killed in Afghanistan described her brother’s memorial page as “almost like it’s brought him back to life a little bit, you can hear his voice,” Stokes says Facebook “can, to some extent, preserve something of the distinctive phenomenal presence of that person—the way they say things, what they looked like, the way they tended to communicate with people.” He continues: “Insofar as it preserves that, I think it probably does help bereaved people, in the same sort of way as reading old letters and things like that helps grieving people.”
It’s hard to achieve anything like the same personal effect with a tombstone, although manufacturers do their best. For one of the fancier numbers — a serpentine-top upright stone 16″ high, mounted on a 6″ base and flanked by two flower vases, all in granite — Headstonesandmemorials.com charges between $1,704 and $2,479. Stones selling at the higher end of that range, presumably, feature extras like “custom artwork” and “ceramic photo tiles.” Not bad, by any means; crowning a grave with anything less could constitute a royal dis against its occupant. But as a rallying spot for well-wishers, it can’t compare to a memorial page, which is instantly accessible, and where visitors can stack on all the bells and whistles they like absolutely free of charge.
The question Zadie Smith could reasonably have asked is whether Facebook-style death, even with its permanence properly understood, looks quite as dreadful or awesome or tragic as the pre-internet kind. In “Elegy Written in A County Churchyard,” Gray’s narrator finds the untended grave of a “youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown,” who “gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,” a more eloquent statement on mortality than “storied urn or animated bust.” What would he say to these (apparently) permanent gardens of happy-clappy emotiveness?
I’m not sure, but I’d say they represent what Florence King would call a twofer, testifying not only to the defunct physical existence of one person, but to the enduring love of many others. Between the mourning jewelry of the Regency and Victorian eras, and the postmortem photographs that came into fashion with the near-simultaneous development of photography and formaldehyde, visible markers of devotion were once the rule. Social critics can scold this generation for being too squeamish to stare too long at corpses, or to carry relics on our persons, but they’ve got to give us credit for ingenuity. For all our delicacy, we’ve figured out a way to remind each other, in the words of the old grave inscriptions, that we’ll be gone before we’re forgotten. That was a lie then, and it’s a lie now — we’ll all be lost to living memory. But Facebook can push back the inevitable from sooner to later.