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In Memoriam, and In Grieving, Digitally

Written By Torey Lightcap

Sadness in the Digital AgeFrom my side of the screen, Tracy (I’ve changed her name for this article) looks to have been poised to take the world by storm. Every photo of her uploaded to Facebook shows a confident, smiling, almost Betty Boop type with cherubic eyes and plenty of quirk. In video clips, her vivacity and her ideas about the world are open and apparent: “From this moment on, I am living my future, and no one can take that away from me, or make my accomplishments seem any less right.”

A little time spent on Google and YouTube and a few other sites with Tracy’s digital memory reveals a teenager who just wanted to make music and maybe lift people’s spirits in the process—a person whose last days were about a stand she took on a pertinent issue because she thought it was the right thing to do. One wants to get to know her more because there is something oddly familiar about her even though she is clearly her own person … something so human about her striving for acknowledgment. She’s like that niece or that second cousin—someone close who has ideas and dreams and the pep to make it happen. Someone who, as she says in the video, lives out her future within the present, living her future “from this moment on.”

On a rainy Thursday afternoon in June 2009, Tracy, just 17 and newly graduated from high school in Vermont, was killed on a highway when her car veered into an opposing lane of traffic. She was there, and then she was not, a candle extinguished.

People die and are memorialized in whatever ways seem the handiest or the longest-lasting. These things have always been true, as assuredly as dying is part of living. 

Death invites grief and speculation and, to those of us who may not know the deceased well, their memorials can act as a mirror where we pause, reflect, and judge our own lives.

Now that the Internet is so pervasive, the lives of strangers who’ve passed on have never been closer to us, and the lives of those we thought we knew continually reappear. The dead, in a sense, have never been more alive. Their broad features and nuances and idiosyncrasies and family dynamics and even their hidden lives are arrayed before us. But for the date and time added to their web postings and the shifting sands of circumstances, they might have just written to us only a moment or two ago.

I have a Facebook friend, Bill, who I knew from seminary. At the age of 57, he was a bright light of the church whose death last year (just 11 days before Tracy’s) came suddenly. And even though he, too, is gone, I cannot conceive of a scenario in which I would ever “unfriend” him. So he remains, digitally, closer and more real than a fact, yet untouchable, noncommunicative except as we speak and sing of the communion of saints.

Perhaps it’s just like that with me; I like to cling a little, and remember. For years I carried around the business cards of people long past—like the one for Charles, a professor from grad school—and I refused to delete from my phone the cell number for Roy, a priest at the church down the road who suffered a fast-moving cancer and who died within weeks of his diagnosis. 

We hang on to the dead however we can.

The number of Facebook groups called “In Memoriam” is around 1,800. “R.I.P.”: 82,000. The same search terms applied to Twitter yield an almost infinite array of results. You can spend days on Facebook alone sifting through respectful electronic memory boxes of the deceased – photos, videos, dream journals, discussions. Every stage of grief is represented, from the long and lonely lament over the peaceably gone to the angry hunt for the perpetrators of murder in the case of violence.

Facebook is mostly words, pictures, and video. In the avatar-driven Second Life, you can actually visit virtual places like the Second Afterlife Cemetery and find grave markers in memory of persons who, while digitally memorialized, were very real in their day. You know there’s nothing (or, better, no body) underneath the virtual grave marker because “there’s no there there,” but you feel somehow that you’re treading holy ground – even if, like me, you do some of your best work in real graveyards.

The line between the simulated and the actual/physical has never been fuzzier. It’s no longer a line, in fact, so much as a hazy area of consistent negotiation. So much care is required.

Yet Facebook itself is pastoral care, and grit for survivors. There, in every conceivable language, from every conceivable theological point of view, group members look after each other, commit to pray for one another, see each other through “these tough times.” They create awards and institutes in the names of the deceased that would trace and honor their passions and visions, because it is human nature to want to get up and “do something” to memorialize a person after a time of grieving.

Somewhere in the master’s thesis I wrote on the emerging Internet culture way back in 1996, I opined that, irony of ironies, this technology that was supposed to be bringing us together socially carried with it the danger of keeping us apart. That was a naïve, if cautious, moralism. Today I hear the same argument being made and find myself turning it back on those who make it. Because at this point I have too many good friends – those with whom I share actual, face-to-face experience, as well as those whom I have never met in person but hold in great esteem through the magic of the computer—to really want to bank on that irony being true.

(In fact, in some instances the connection goes too far, as when ill-meaning stalkers prey on  the vulnerable who have suffered a loss. Nothing protects people better than their own sense of privacy and boundary; and in the case of the young, their parents’ knowledge about their online whereabouts.)

My life is now a web of social networks—a network of networks, if you will. Some of those networks are media-constructed realities. Some are familial. Some are professional and vocational in nature. Some of what remains are just the interstices of all the foregoing, the places where one network overlaps with another. The Web and my little portable device have radically extended my reach into those networks in a way I would never have imagined possible, and I am but one among billions. As surely as I live out my call to ministry in all these spheres, equally I receive ministry from humble and caring individuals who need to show their best and most capable selves to someone.

This technology is simply, yes, an utterly ordinary extension of ourselves into something that was merely dreamt of just a generation ago. So…who cares if that’s how we grieve or find solace? Who cares if we “take it to the Lord in prayer” in the anonymity of a chat room or a Second Life cathedral? What difference does it make if we heal online or off? Won’t the one reality eventually seep into the other? The bulk of my experience suggests there’s really no other way to see it.

Just as she was about to embark on her own, Tracy’s future telescoped back into itself on a rainy day in June. Her classmates and friends responded by reaching out to one another, covering the spaces between themselves in a radical act of hospitality. That act of extending themselves into one another didn’t require the blessing of the church; it just happened.

Even so, for those with eyes to see, it bears the name of God.

Copyright ©2010 Torey Lightcap