Facebook Memorializing: What’s Church Got to Do with It?

R.I.P. on Facebook
Lisa Miller, Newsweek (February 17, 2010)

Grieving and memorializing through Facebook, along with Twitter and other sites, has faced criticism for being impersonal and superficial. Lisa Miller, religion editor at Newsweek, introduces a religious perspective on Facebook as a community space for grief:

We live in a disjointed time. Many of us reside far from our families and have grown indifferent to the habits of organized religion. More of us — 16 percent — declare ourselves “unaffiliated” with any religious denomination. …

The Christian ideal of “the community of saints,” in which the dead rest peacefully in the churchyard, as much a part of the congregation as those singing in the nave, is something any 19th-century churchgoer would have instinctively understood. In the absence of that literal proximity, Facebook “keeps the person in the communal space — the way a churchyard would,” says Noreen Herzfeld, professor of science and religion at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

All of which raises tantalizing questions: the average Facebook user has aged to 33 years old. In two generations, will the pages of the dead outnumber the living? Will our unchurched children be content to memorialize us with a quip on a “wall”? Something is gained, but what is lost in this evolution from corporeal grief (the rending of garments) to grief tagged with a virtual rose?

It’s fascinating to think of Facebook as someday having more dead than living account holders (I personally don’t think it has that kind of longevity, but hey — you never know). Though I suffer no anxiety about it, I’m also curious how online interactions compare to traditional, meatspace experiences, in individual instances and for societies over time. This isn’t a new form of grief, but a new vehicle for expressing the old grief.

I do, however, take issue with the idea of “unchurched children being content” with virtual memorials. In addition to it weirdly suggesting that Facebook is or shall become a den of heathens, it also seems to suggest that the “unchurched,” on Facebook or not, have less meaningful or are otherwise remiss about grief and memorializing.

Technological advances in communication and community do not discriminate between the religious and the nonreligious — or for that matter, those who go to church or those who identify as Christians but don’t regularly attend services. The “churched” are just as susceptible to “being content with” what contents them in every other aspect of their wired lives — including online discussions and memorials about the people they cared about.

Incidentally, that sounds like a congregation — and one that doesn’t require ascribing to a set of beliefs to participate and feel welcome. …Though you do need to agree to Terms of Service, this is generally less monumental than consigning, resigning or denying your soul.

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