Let us begin Day 22 of the 31 Days of Death posts with an immediate thought: Of course people are taking Selfies at the 9/11 Memorial. Even if photography was banned at the site, people would still sneak Selfies. Why? Because the expression ‘photos or it didn’t happen’ is both a joke and a serious sentiment. How does a person document, not just a visit to a place, but actually show that he or she was really, truly in that specific spot? Answer: with a Selfie; the kind of photo that an individual can autonomously take without having to ask a complete stranger (since that would be weird) to snap a picture.
You want proof that I personally experienced this amazing unforgettable Memorial space? Then here you go– a Selfie of me #standingstrong.
The entire reason that this is a story, and analysed extremely well by Leah Finnegan on The Awl, is the 9/11 Memorial’s inclusion. But for the events of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing struggle to actually build a memorial in lower Manhattan, these Selfies could be in almost any major city’s downtown landscape featuring enormous urban waterfalls.
I have a hunch that the 9/11 Memorial Selfies story is going to unleash a fury of responses, not unlike last year’s Selfies at Funerals brouhaha (which Death Ref covered in-depth).
After a while, then, the shouting (or really really really self-righteously indignant tweeting) will cease and people will continue taking Selfies at the 9/11 Memorial. Until people stop visiting the Memorial and even forget why it’s there. This won’t occur in my lifetime, but it will most certainly happen. #nofilter
The Memorial and Museum have both come under criticism for many different reasons. I visited the 9/11 Memorial site in April 2014 (alas, no Selfies…) and it’s a memorial, yes, but a memorial surrounded by a police state. The metal detectors, the armed police officers watching the crowds hustled through entrance areas surrounded by barbed wire, and the high metal fences that encase the entire site in an unwelcoming embrace are my strongest memories.
When the 9/11 Museum opened this spring it generated immediate criticism for daring to have a giftshop. Again, of course the 9/11 Museum has a giftshop. And even a Cafe.
In fact, I bet people take Selfies at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Giftshop and Cafe. #NomNom!
New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik’s essay on the Memorial and Museum is one of the best pieces that I’ve read about the site’s complicated politics. I highly recommend it.
Adrian Tomine created the cover for that particular New Yorker issue (July 7 & 14, 2014) and calls it “Memorial Plaza.” The cover is at the top of the page and I think that I’m violating several copyright laws by using it, but Tomine truly captures the visual human experience of the 9/11 Memorial.
Indeed, a couple is taking a Selfie front and center. #NeverForget
It was inevitable, I suppose. At a certain point early 21st-century humans would begin doing things with computer technology that their long lost late 20th-century cousins did roughly twenty years earlier.
And lo, it has come to pass with death and the internet.
The New York Times has a Fashion & Style feature on how the kids are using the world wide web to discuss death, loss, the end-of-life, grieving, etc.
Anytime the Grey Lady describes something as fashionable then it’s almost certainly dead. Irony of ironies, given the article’s subject.
Using the internet, the web, computers, digital technology, communication technology writ large to discuss death, loss, the end-of-life, grieving, etc. is not new. Indeed, humans have been using the interweb to discuss death since the early days of html and Netscape.
We need to go back in time now, to a long-forgotten-about age when people still said Information Superhighway without irony or smirking. That’s right, we’re headed back to the mid-1990s.
As soon as the ‘web’ became a viable entity, largely because of the browsers Mosaic and then Netscape, individual users began creating websites about death.
It is also important to point out that everything happening in the late 20th-century also built on technology used during the 19th-century (e.g., telegraph communication, photography, rail transport, etc.) but I’ll stick with the 1990’s for now.
In 1996, a television show called the Internet Cafe began a run on American Public Television. The programme was later re-named the Net Cafe and it lasted until 2002. Think of it as the paleo-YouTube.
Two years into the Internet Cafe’s existence, on June 26, 1998 (historical aside: Bill Clinton wouldn’t be impeached until December 19, 1998 but most television footage was about the Starr Report), it aired a programme called Grim Reaper Web Sites.
As the title suggests, the entire show examines how people are using the world wide web to discuss a long list of death topics and issues. My particular favourite is the guy who creates a memorial website for Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia.
The moral of our time-traveling tale is this: We humans began using the internet and web as soon as we could to discuss death. Why? Because that’s what we do with all communication technology. The technology will always change but death itself remains predictably guaranteed and discussed.
But don’t take my word for it, you can WATCH this episode of the Internet Cafe because of the always wonderful Internet Archive.
I also embedded the show at the bottom of the page.
The 1990’s live dude.
And if you’re interested in the history (both old and new) of death and technology then check out Death Ref’s Death + Technology page.
I’ll be giving a talk on these death technology issues (and other things) at the upcoming UK Death Salon.
One final point. In another twenty or thirty years I firmly believe that an intrepid reporter for the New York Times will write an article about whatever technology exists at that time (our computer overlords, most likely) and how the kids are using it to discuss death.
I watched the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr link roll across the internet this week and after seeing the images I immediately knew what was going to happen. People would complain about how the kids today were so self-absorbed that civilisation was near its collapse and how today’s youth don’t have any respect. I also knew that after this immediate condemnation, another group of voices would rise up to support the forsaken youth.
And this, Death Ref faithful, is exactly what happened.
But then, as should always be expected, another group of people took a more nuanced stand per the Selfies.
My good friend Caitlin Doughty at the Order of the Good Death wrote a strong defense of the kids on Jezebel and I mostly agree with her thoughts on the images. Where I disagree with Cailin is in arguing that these images represent a broader social disengagement with the reality of death. If anything, these photos show young people engaging with death, and doing so with a specific language that they’ve developed.
We humans invented all of our human death rituals. As a result, this means that all death rituals are constantly being changed, altered, and turned into hybrids. There is nothing innate about any ritual (given its human construction) so I think that it’s important to say that I would be more surprised if young people weren’t taking Selfies at funerals. This is the world they know but that doesn’t mean that today’s youth somehow lack any education about death.
Ironically enough, the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr page probably caused thousands more people to discuss actual death and funerals this week because of its supposedly disrespectful tone. Maybe, just maybe, the kids beat the adults at their own ‘We NEED to talk about death game.’
Katy Waldman at Slate took a wise step and waited a few days before writing anything. She presents a good critique of responses to the images but also brings everything back to the kids using the photographs as forms of grieving. I agree with this point and I kept waiting for someone to roll out a broader discussion about the relationship between photography and death.
Photography has a long standing relationship with funerals, especially in America. The camera phone is only the most recent example of a technology we humans use to capture images at funerals. Another way of looking at these photos is this– what else would anyone in the First World expect teenagers to do with their camera phones at funerals? Megan Garberoct at The Atlantic wrote an uncannily timed article on 19th century postmortem photography and the ability of Victorian era photographers to capture ‘Sprit’ images with their cameras.
But more than the photos themselves, it seems that the people criticising the kids just don’t like the technology involved, i.e., the camera phone that produced the self-taken image.
Here, then, is the key lesson for everyone loving to hate and hating to love the Selfies at Funerals: We humans remain deeply conflicted when mixing all forms of technology with death.
The great science fiction writer Douglas Adams (who died far too young) made the following observation about humans and technology in The Salmon of Doubt:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Given that my own research in the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society examines how technology and death intermingle all the time, I want to let everyone know that Selfies at Funerals represent only the beginning of a much longer future. We should already be asking ourselves what happens when a person wearing a computing machine, such as Google Glass, captures images and video at a funeral. Is a line being crossed there and why? How? I ask these questions, because it is going to happen and happen soon.
Just remember, and not so long ago, the idea of using the internet for anything to do with death seemed inappropriate. So did playing pre-recorded music on a CD (especially loud rock and roll music), having mourners draw or paint on a coffin, or even choosing to be to cremated.
What we humans forget is that death’s persistence means that we will persistently invent new kinds of death rituals. No ritual lives forever. Will Coldwell’s Guardian article on Dark Tourism highlights how easily the very idea of established and appropriate ‘death rituals’ can be changed.
Earlier this year, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series ran an episode called Be Right Back that effectively dramatised how the not-to-distant future might offer new kinds of technology for human grieving. Here is the show’s description:
Martha and Ash are a young couple who move to a remote cottage. The day after the move, Ash is killed, returning the hire van. At the funeral, Martha’s friend Sarah tells her about a new service that lets people stay in touch with the deceased. By using all his past online communications and social media profiles, a new ‘Ash’ can be created. Martha is disgusted by the concept but then in a confused and lonely state she decides to talk to ‘him’…
Trust me when I say that if the technology imagined in Black Mirror suddenly appeared, the Selfies at Funerals shock and outrage would quickly wash away into the sea of human memory.
So where does this week take us? It’s hard to say, because I have a feeling most people have already forgotten about the Selfies at Funerals and moved on to other more pressing issues.
But I do think that it is now time to officially launch a new Death Reference Desk rule about death and technology. To wit:
The Death Ref Technology Law: Any use of new technology that involves death, dying, and/or the dead body will be simultaneously rejected as a breakdown in human civility as well as embraced as an innovative turn for human grieving.
Or, as my friend Max summed up the situation on Facebook:
I was disgusted by this until I remembered I took a selfie at the last funeral I went to. Now I’m okay with it.