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Part I: Death, Mourning, and Social Media

“Messaging the Dead: Social Network Sites and Theologies of Afterlife” by Erinn Staley expanded how the reader might connect the act of communication and the reciprocal nature of this art by providing an etiquette for communicating with the dead via social networks (specifically Facebook). Staley also brought to bear an interesting emphasis on the religious and theological in this encounter. First, the author explained some of the rationale behind a “Memorial” Facebook page for a deceased person: “In other words, no one can access the deceased user’s account in order to… send and respond to messages. Such responses, were they possible, might give the appearance of communication of the dead” (p. 11). Drawing on this knowledge, Staley’s etiquette reiterated that messages to these memorial pages, directly following death, are typically addressed to a larger public and “concern logistics about funerals and other related events” (p. 12). Afterwards, messages typically are addressed to the deceased personally and relate to special occasions in which the writer may be thinking about the deceased. Importantly, Staley suggested that this communication can challenge thoughts of the afterlife and even the rhetorical capacity of corpses, specifically that “the deceased may be able to receive electronic communications from the living” (p. 13). Staley also admitted that this communication is not centered in a denial of death, but rather in the hopes of regaining personal connection with the deceased and expressing well-wishes in the journey through the afterlife.

There is an inherent hope that the dead can not only see the activities of the living but also receive communication about them, even if they cannot respond and that “deceased is imagined as continuing to care about the living” (p. 14). Importantly, for our treatment here, the study of the rhetorical capacity of corpses, these communication acts imply that while the deceased is lifeless, “she retains some kind of body that can see and hear earthly events, including computerized messages” (p. 15). This identification with the deceased also brings about questions of identity formation. By memorializing and then posting on the memorial page, authors are not only remembering the subject but also reshaping their identity and legacy entirely. The memory of the deceased is now the amalgamated simulacrum of the individual and the posters’ memories of the individual. Staley ended with the potentialities of this new communication act: “to facilitate community among the living in a way that many other rituals surrounding death do not” (p. 18). This community building and identity shaping, as well as the very communication with the deceased, is not necessarily imposed by a religious or ideological viewpoint, but rather is a result of experimentation and play in this new medium. Likewise, ideas about who can communicate and the purpose of communication seem to be shifting away from the tyranny of active participation and education towards something altogether different, something altogether more macabre and (in my opinion) more exciting.

Screenshot of #RIPCHESTERBennington on Twitter
#RIPChesterBennington. Twitter[Screenshot], 23 September 2017, https://twitter.com/hashtag/RIPChesterBennington?src=hash

Heidi Ebert, in her “Profiles of the Dead: Mourning and Memorial on Facebook,” explained that not only does the audience play an integral role in shaping the identity of the memorialized subject, but these acts also “signal the migration of death practice further into the mundane” (p. 26) because of their vernacular nature. While this public and mundane nature of mourning is far from new, the digital aspect of it allows for fewer restrictions on the performance of that nature. Ebert placed this in comparison to Victorian mourning practices which were socially externalized through specific markers/ restrictions, many of which have fallen away in the digital world: “contemporary mourning is characterized more by its variation and personalization than by any shared ritual” (p. 26). This personalization of the ritual has given way to an increase in images of the dead and perceived communication with the dead and has integrated mourning into still-ongoing relationships with the living (p. 30). Likewise, since the communication is seemingly one-sided and there is no expectation of reciprocity, this brings mourners even closer together much in the same way that grave-side vigils and letters to the dead functioned in previous generations. While many mourning practices may have completely changed from the Victorian era, Ebert’s claim is less about opposition to previous eras and more about the shrinking divide between the public and private spheres. Ebert’s claim that photographs “represent the past without distinguishing between a living subject and a dead one” (p. 31) became increasingly important to the study of these corpses and our interaction with them precisely because “digital and virtual objects are real, in that they exist in physical space, and engaging with them is a material experience” (p. 33). This bridged divide between the living and the dead that memorial pages provide and the knowledge that digital objects are real combine to create an image of a corpse that is active in both identity formation and digital reality.

Rejecting that emotional connection with an object requires that object to be physical as opposed to digital, Ebert went on to claim that “the experience of engaging with it is dependent on a physical user and is therefore a material act” (p. 34). In fact, digital objects seem to be even more valuable as memorial objects because they are typically evocative of a specific time and place, via a time stamp and the location tagging function (p. 34). This chapter closed by reminding the reader that, “The selves of the dead persist in memory but can also be perceived as actors in the lives of those who remember them and engage with their memories” (p. 36). This argument lent not only agency to the corpse—via personalization of the ritual and the bridged divide between our mourning and our interaction with the living, but also reminds that even the agency of the living is dependent on engagement with other organisms. As such, the agency of the dead is (at least in part) dependent on contact with the living.

The remaining two chapters in this section intensify and clarify these ideas. Ari Stillman’s “Virtual Graveyard: Facebook, Death, and the Existentialist Critique” treated the topic through a specific philosophical idea and holds the potential to become a very intriguing point of reference for those wishing to integrate existentialism with religious overtones. The chapter’s mission of exploring how “Facebook has permanently, though perhaps, indirectly altered religiocultural constructs of grieving by transcending their conventional temporal, spatial, and social boundaries” (p. 43) complements the previous two chapters. Stillman investigated a postmodern process of grieving and the changing meaning of medium and message in the rhetorical situation, arriving at a phenomenological ontology of Facebook. Importantly, Stillman reminded the reader that this “collaborative identity construction” (p. 58) begets “fragile” facts which can be manipulated and challenged on the deceased’s Facebook wall. It is in this identity construction that lies the path toward agency for the corpse and unfortunately the sometimes negative impact of memorialization on that agency.

Candi Cann’s “Tweeting Death, Posting Photos, and Pinning Memorials: Remembering the Dead in Bits and Pieces” explored what she called a “common syntax of grief” (p. 69) which can be compared to Erinn Staley’s etiquette from the first chapter. These common practices create a sort of language for dealing with the death of a loved one on social media and begin to shape how we interact with our deceased. Cann drew comparisons to the tradition of Memento Mori and understands death as shifting to a public consumable (p. 76). Again, this removal of mourning from the private sphere and into the public domain makes for complicated and intricate networks of distributive agency.

Screenshot of Facebook page titled In Memory of Chester Bennington
@ChesterWillBeMissed. In Memory of Chester Bennington. Facebook, 19 August 2017, https://www.facebook.com/ChesterWillBeMissed/?ref=py_c

Throughout these sites we can see a definite and intricate attention to Bruno Latour’s actor network theory, which Jane Bennett (2010) adapts in her Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. As Bennett summarized, “an actant is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman: it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events” (p. viii). Specifically, Bennett’s question of “How could an understanding of agency as a confederation of human and nonhuman elements alter established notions of moral responsibility and political accountability?” (p. 21) is a great point of entry for this collection in general, but specifically for the first section. In this changing culture of death and decay, we must begin to take account of who or what is responsible for identity formation and agency of the dead body in online settings.