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Part II: Online Memorialization and Digital Legacies

Michael Arntfield’s “eMemoriam: Digital Necrologies, Virtual Remembrance, and the Question of Permanence” focused specifically on the obituary and the changes it has experienced in our highly digital culture of death. He sought to understand “whether digital forms of remembrance fundamentally reject traditions that have stood for centuries in the offline world, or if they instead seek to replicate them while at the same time enabling accessibility, and whether this balancing is sustainable or if there is instead an inherently preferred form of remembrance” (p. 90). Permanence is his main concern specifically as situated in the digital realm, which is notoriously fraught with complicated notions of permanence. In fact, it could be said that this chapter deals with an underlying issue at the root of our discussion here. Is the agency and identity of the corpse as permanently stable as it was before the rise of online memorialization? Through his historical approach to the obituary, readers can see that this question is bound up in ideas of public spectacle, purist versus populist notions of obituary writing, the narrative genre itself, and “kitschification” (p. 95).

a snowy graveyard with headstones
Zeilon, Kicki. The graveyard. Flickr, 7 January 2016, https://flic.kr/p/CNvpSD

Chapter 6, “The Restless Dead in the Digital Cemetery” by Bjorn Nansen, Michael Arnold, Martin Gibbs, and Tamara Kohn, argued that “digital technologies are increasingly intertwined with physical environments” (p. 111). This mix of materiality and modality is increasingly exemplified in not only our interactions on social media (as Erinn Ebert and Heidi Staley argue) but also in our everyday life and modern funerary rites. This disturbance of the corpse via modal shifts in interment is what this chapter’s authors termed the “restless posthumous experience” (p. 111). Again, we see authors in this collection arguing for the animation of corpses and their rhetorical capacity by way of modern technologies that allow for increased contact from beyond the grave. The authors began by walking the reader through some specific (and interesting) instances of multimodality between the digital and physical world. For example, Talking Tombstones allow audio and visual biographical information to be displayed on the screen of a tombstone. Living Headstones are embedded with a QR code that opens a website containing digital links and content about the deceased. These are what the authors called “important conduits in the digital intertwining of the physical world…which seek to animate the dead” (p. 115-116). Like many of the authors before them, these authors too believed that “the intention is to suggest that the dead continue to be involved in the activities of the living” (p. 117).

These modern solutions seem to stem from the question of materialities. Since gravestones seem to be built for longevity (a denser and more durable material) in comparison to online memorial sites, this multimodality breathes life into the desire to maintain communication and presence with the dead. What once required a séance now requires enough money and the right company. While “digital technologies are mediating the physical space of the cemetery” (p. 121) they are also allowing mourners to come into closer contact with the deceased.

a graveyard in fall with angel scultpture and tombstones
Wardhani, Winter. Graveyard.Flickr, 29 November 2013, https://flic.kr/p/hWLEig

Pam Briggs and Lisa Thomas bring to the forefront another version of material and cultural value in their “Social Value of Digital Ghosts,” chapter 7. Since the objects and memories collected throughout a person’s life are “increasingly taking a digital form” (p. 125), we must begin to imagine our legacy as a digital one. Briggs and Thomas dissected what it means to leave behind a digital footprint and how that can transform into a legacy. Examining the technology probably more than other works in this collection, the authors explored the issues contained within the collection of digital legacies including legal and psychological issues that have arisen. They termed these legacies and the technology that helps create them “digital ghosts” and argued that these are much more than simply a file of folders hanging around in the ether. In reference to social media, these ghosts are tangible and clickable links that can be found with something as easy as a Google search. So, contributing to the importance of our central question, these authors reminded us that our digital legacies and footprints are now more than ever vital for dissection considering they could potentially be the only way our deceased are memorialized other than the distant graveyard or urn.

Rebecca Moore contributed her interestingly personal connection with digital memorials and legacy in her “Mythopoesis, Digital Democracy, and the Legacy of the Jonestown Website.” Through her analysis of Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, we can see a first-hand experience of a mass online memorial in action. Moore responded to the idea of disenfranchised grief and cyber memorialization’s complication and alleviating of said grief. In some ways digital memorials can put into words the grief of the distant deceased, but it can also become a more contentious site where identities may be changed and manipulated. Her work reminds us that this idea of the archive is one that is entirely about the entanglement of loss, grief, and bodies that continue to matter to us.

a black and white image of a graveyard in winter with a house in the background
Ronning, Torbein. “Graveyard.”
Flickr, 11 February 2005, https://flic.kr/p/qwGS