Bloggers' New Ars Moriendi

Salon reports that Canadian blogger Derek Miller died shortly after blogging his own death. Miller, first diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2007, had been using his blog as a platform for his meditations on illness and death, longing and loss. His final post begins:

Here it is. I’m dead, and this is my last post to my blog. In advance, I asked that once my body finally shut down from the punishments of my cancer, then my family and friends publish this prepared message I wrote—the first part of the process of turning this from an active website to an archive.

His final message runs about 1,400 words — short sentences, no rambling, no block quotes. In literary terms, the man was a thoroughbred. The post drew almost 3.000 Facebook likes — a number which, under any other circumstances, I’d surely envy.

But what impresses me most about Miller is his detachment. That word might not apply in its religious sense; Miller was an atheist. But the absence of any afterlife seems not to bother him. He writes:

I haven’t gone to a better place, or a worse one. I haven’t gone anyplace, because Derek doesn’t exist anymore. As soon as my body stopped functioning, and the neurons in my brain ceased firing, I made a remarkable transformation: from a living organism to a corpse, like a flower or a mouse that didn’t make it through a particularly frosty night. The evidence is clear that once I died, it was over.

So I was unafraid of death—of the moment itself—and of what came afterwards, which was (and is) nothing. As I did all along, I remained somewhat afraid of the process of dying, of increasing weakness and fatigue, of pain, of becoming less and less of myself as I got there. I was lucky that my mental faculties were mostly unaffected over the months and years before the end, and there was no sign of cancer in my brain—as far as I or anyone else knew.

Though Miller expresses disappointment at “missing out,” he concludes:

The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place. There is always more to find out. I don’t look back and regret anything, and I hope my family can find a way to do the same.

As you’ll have noticed, Miller writes of himself in the past tense, as though from beyond the grave. For me, at least, this was confusing in a wonderful way: if words are coming from a man who was, then maybe he still is. I wonder what Miller would make of the contradiction.

Miller isn’t the only blogger who’s invited the world to his sickbed, or deathbed. Alicia Parlette, a San Francisco journalist, who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 23, has kept a chronicle of her experiences in Alicia’s Story. There must me many others — more than anyone could name, or I could link to.

Some advantages to having such easy access to so many real-time personal accounts of sickness, pain and dying are fairly obvious. All the taboos surrounding the body’s inevitable collapse are shattered; the world gets a big, fat “memento mori,” along with innumerable competing versions of the Ars Moriendi

But I suspect there’s another reason to cheer this new connectedness: people suffer and die better in front of an appreciative audience. To cite just one example, there’s my mother’s brother, whose carotid doctors recently unblocked. The operation involved the insertion of a Foley catheter, which remained in place for several days afterward — a grim experience.

When he talked to my mother, for whom his jokes have always been hit or miss, he sounded grumpy throughout the conversation.

I’ve always been a big fan of his. When I called, he opened with, “They stuck a Foley in a Foley.” Foley is his surname. I fold him, “Bravo, sir!” And he brightened up immediately.

Actually, like Miller’s FB numbers, the Foley-in-a-Foley joke is something I’d normally have envied, or possibly tried to steal. But there are times it’s best to be magnanimous.

Oh, and since we’ve been talking a lot about St. Therese lately, imagine if she’d blogged, or better, vlogged. She could have converted half of Vietnam in her very own lifetime.

– Max Lindenman

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I think it is interesting that you think of the connectedness as being “in front of an audience”. I never would have thought of it that way. Instead, I see it more as companionship. “I’m happy I don’t really have to suffer and die alone.” Do bloggers naturally think of people as an audience instead of companions? You said “Bravo” to your uncle.

    Does all this blogging and “reality TV” turn us into performers? Are people generally authentic? Have you ever come upon a blog where you knew the person and knew that what they had written was not true or was exaggerated, or that they were not who they portrayed themselves to be? Is that common, or are people generally authentic on their blogs?

    Are we all always acting for an audience, even when the audience is God?

  • Max Lindenman

    To perform doesn’t mean to misrepresent yourself to to be anything other than sincere. It smiply means to take into account the sensibilities of your audience, or your readership, and tweak your presentation either to accommodate them, or to purposefully jar them. You’re still telling the truth, still being yourself; you’re just doing these things in a particualrly focused way.

    I don’t think you’d want to sit around and listen as someome talked to you as though he were talking to himself.

  • cathyf

    “I don’t think you’d want to sit around and listen as someome talked to you as though he were talking to himself.”

    Well, I dunno — the conversations between The Anchoress and Bad Lizzie are pretty entertaining!

  • Max Lindenman

    They’re both ace performers, those two crazy kids.

  • Aimee

    Such an interesting point. As a teacher, I realize that every time I step into a classroom it’s a performance–this sense is exaggerated for me as a college teacher, since the time is so limited. And you’re right–it’s not that I’m not myself when I’m teaching (students can always sense when the persona is false, for one thing–they sniff that out in a matter of minutes). Instead, in many ways I’m my better self–or a self where, at least briefly, the narcissism is put aside and I devote myself wholly to a subject and to the people i front of me. Writing is a performance in a similar way–the Renaissance men knew this, as they fashioned themselves for/on the page.

  • Anushree Shirali

    I appreciate his inviting people on his journey to death. That may sound macabre, but spending time with my father as he was dying of pancreatic cancer showed me that it can be a hauntingly beautiful experience. I hope Mr. Miller is now enjoying the afterlife that he could not believe in while alive, but one to which the Hound of Heaven calls us all. RIP.

  • Max Lindenman

    I don’t think that’s macabre at all, Amshree. My dad died very suddenly. It was less a case of “Here today, gone tomorow” than “Here one minute, gone the next.” It taught me a valuable lesson about life’s fragility, but all things considered, I’d have preferred the chance to exchange messages of a lifetime with him.

    In fairness, I don’t really know what he’d have preferred. Given the choice, he might have taken the quick exit.

  • Bernadette

    My brother died suddenly from a heart attack in January 2009. I had been blogging at that point for some years, and continued blogging through this, from when all we knew was that he had keeled over at work, to when they officially pronounced him dead at the hospital three days later. Overnight my small blog, read mostly by friends and family, started getting hits from all over the world. This was partly because the rest of my family was passing the word that people should check my blog for the latest news, and we have friends in every part of the world, but also I think because people are drawn to the truly dramatic, and death is about as dramatic as it gets.

    It was such an odd experience for me. I was suddenly hyper-conscious that I had an audience, that people were actually reading the messages in a bottle I was launching out into the vast ocean of the internet. I felt exposed, vulnerable. I almost stopped blogging, but by then we had realized how much of a service it was to the rest of my family to have one place to send people to read what happened rather than having to individually repeat the same dreadful stories over and over.

    At the same time, I began to realize that what I was writing was having a powerful effect on some of my readers. A stranger in Italy wrote me to say that, as an atheist who had been raised without religion, he had never before witnessed a family dealing with death from a perspective of faith. I think that’s the connection you speak of. We (I) had allowed him to see into the heart of our family tragedy, and it had an effect on his life.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    Certainly we all engage in social performance. If we didn’t, we would probably be killing each other! I wasn’t suggesting that we go around talking stream-of-consciousness style. I think Max’s term “focused” is better than “performance”. I think performance still contains more of an element of “watch me” instead of “be with me.”

    I found Aimee’s comments fascinating. I still don’t think of what she is doing as performance. Maybe it’s just the way I think of the word, and I am being too narrow. For me, “presentation” is a better word than “performance”.