Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Web

Everything Oldish is New Again: Generation Y Re-discovers the World Wide Web of Death

An Online Generation Redefines Mourning
Expressions of grief take on many public forms in the digital age.
By Hannah Seligson, New York Times (March 21, 2014)

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.

Three observations:

  1. Anytime the Grey Lady describes something as fashionable then it’s almost certainly dead. Irony of ironies, given the article’s subject.
  2. Death Ref’s good friend Caitlin Doughty from Ask a Mortician and the Order of the Good Death is quoted in the article and that’s always good to see.
  3. 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.

…Dramatic Pause…

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.

Here is a direct link to the Grim Reaper programme.

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.

The rest will be silence.

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology Death + the Web

A Brief Glimpse into the Future Cemetery.

The Future Cemetery Project is sneaking up behind you.

Right now.

You. I. We all know that death is the future

Follow the Future Cemetery here.

And here.

And for a matter of minutes you can see what and who lives in the Future Cemetery.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Grief + Mourning

Social Media Web Users Keep Dying…Second Verse Same as the First

On the Media: Updating Your Social Media After You Die
WNYC Public Radio (March 23, 2012)
With social media, so much of our interactions with the world now live online, even after we may not be living at all. Brooke talks to James Norris, the founder of the website Deadsocial about prolonging social media relationships after death.

Back in February, I wrote about WNYC’s radio program On the Media and its show on Facebook. That Death Ref post, subtly titled 19,000 Facebook Users Die Each Day. Here is How FB’s Memorialization Mode Works, discussed the current, nonstop discussions about what to do when web users (especially FB users, it seems) die.

The Death Reference Desk has been tracking most of the various suggested ways to maintain postmortem control over social media accounts, Facebook in particular, and you can read those posts here. You should also check out the Death + the Web and the Death + Technology sections.

For this week’s On the Media show, co-host Brooke Gladstone interviewed James Norris about his solution to the social media death problem, a platform called Deadsocial.

A couple of points.

Gladstone asked the most pressing question, which is this: How long lived is any new media solution to human death issues given how quickly computing technology changes?

Norris offers a couple of logical responses, mostly about how Deadsocial would adapt to any future social media platform and that doing so was only ethical.

I’m still skeptical that any of the various dead user related websites/programs will remain relevant into the future but I could be totally wrong. I say I’m skeptical because I know how much technology has changed when it comes to death, dying, and the dead body. Meg’s brilliant post on 19th Century Anti-Premature Burial Device Patents elegantly demonstrates how social concerns about different kinds of postmortem technological fixes radically shift over time.

In fact, I will suggest that most of the current, various dead user inventions, programs, and products are more or less 21st Century versions of 19th Century anti-premature burial devices. The thinking now isn’t so much that people need tools to prevent them from being buried alive (modern embalming and cremation solved that dilemma), rather now we need tools to make sure that we Humans can still exert some control over how our digital selves are buried.

In 50 years time, I fully expect that all of these social media concerns will have been forgotten. Or replaced with other, more pressing technology issues.

A second point about the interview. The Deadsocial system was described as a signaling program which checks on users and notifies other, predetermined people when a person isn’t responding to automated messages. A handful of other programs already do this, namely, Deathswitch. All of these programs are different in their own ways, so I’m not suggesting that any company is ripping anyone else off. What is more interesting, I think, is that these various companies keep inventing ways to notify next-of-kin or friends or all of the Facebook that someone has died.

This was also one of the telegraph’s key uses, from the start. A long forgotten but extremely important social communication technology.

My point is this — we should continue to have these conversations about what happens to computer information when people die but we should also realize that these conversations are finite.

I actually found another section of the same On the Media episode far more compelling as it regards the dead user conundrum. The interview focused on something called the Archive Team:

Most of us think nothing of putting our lives in the cloud; photos in Flickr, videos on YouTube, most everything on Facebook. But what about when those services abruptly go away, taking all of our collective contributions with them? Well Jason Scott operates on the assumption that everything online will one day disappear. He explains to Bob why he and the Archive Team are dedicated to saving user-generated content for posterity.

At least the Achive Team understands the rapidly increasing ephemerality of web based information. Indeed, the Archive Team’s motto says it all: History is Our Future.

More than likely, we will need future Archive Teams of all kinds that simply try to understand why some early 21st Century humans became so obsessed with preserving their technological, social media selves. It will all seem to peculiar and strange.

Not unlike 19th Century devices to prevent premature burials.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Web

Digital Death Day: London Calling

Digital Death Day London
Saturday, October 9th 9am-5pm
Centre for Creative Collaboration
University of London
16 Acton Street
(King’s Cross Station)
WC1X 9NG London

Last May, Meg wrote up a really interesting piece on a Digital Death Day un-conference in California. That post, Digital Death Day is Every Day, is part of Death Ref’s ongoing coverage of all things postmortem and online. See, for example, the Death + the Web section of the website.

Meg, Kim, and I were all disappointed that we missed the Digital Death Day since the organizers outlined a number of topics that the three of us follow:

Death is a part of life and life has (to an extent) become digital.

This un-conference will be primarily concerned with provoking discourse around the social, cultural and practical implications of Death in the Digital World. Thus stimulating a reconsideration of how death, mourning, memories and history are currently being augmented in our technologically mediated society.

The archiving, networking and post mortem engagement of ‘digital remains’ leads us to consider what place digital information has in our lives legally, sentimentally and historically.

But then something oh-so-exciting happened: a second Digital Death Day event was announced and this one will be in London.

Good old London.

Lots of death and dead bodies in that city.

Here is the official .pdf invitation for Digital Death Day London.

Meg, Kim, and I want a strong showing from our UK Death Reference Desk readers. Indeed, I’ll be able to attend this next Digital Death Day since Bath (where I live) is just a hop, skip, and a jump for old smokey.

The trick with all these ongoing discussions about how death has changed due to digital technologies is that we Homo sapiens are still in the middle of the forest on this one.

As Meg once succinctly put it: How long is forever on the internet?

So there you have it.

I look forward to engaging in all these postmortem discussion topics on October 9 and please, please come up and say hello.

Death + Technology Death + the Web Monuments + Memorials

Social Networking’s Sudden Morbidity and Mortality

Twitter. And Facebook. And death.
Future Tense with John Moe, American Public Media (August 16, 2010)

Just recently, Twitter announced new guidelines on what it will do when a user dies. Twitter now joins the ranks of Facebook and Myspace in coming up with policies for dead members.

We here at Death Ref have been covering this issue since day one. You can find all kinds of information at our Death + The Web link. Indeed, just last week both Meg and Kim posted items on social networking websites and death.

The radio program Future Tense interviewed me about what social networking sites are doing and the broader history of human memorialization.

You can listen to the interview right here:

Death + the Law Death + the Web Death Ethics Monuments + Memorials

Dead Netizen

There’s been much talk of late about what happens to your online social connections, not to mention your email and all the other ways you exist virtually, after you die. With Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and others there’s you and then there’s virtual you.

As more and more people join the virtual you ranks, the implementation of protocols and practices become necessary when the real you dies.

Yesterday, Twitter announced their new policy for deceased users. Prior to this, they had no policy in place.

In July, the NY Times published a story about what happens to your Facebook account after you die. Facebook’s policies, specifically the ability to “memorialize” someone’s Facebook page, have been in place since October, 2009.

But one size does not fit all as policies and practices vary greatly among the various email and social network providers, making it a confusing maze for those trying to navigate through it after a loved-one’s death. Various sites attempt to sort it all out. But, as technology changes and new social networking and email sites emerge, so too will protocols need to change. In writing this post, I ran across a post discussing the legal ramifications of deceased users and their “digital property”. It seems future lawyers are trying to understand it too—perhaps all the better to eventually litigate it, I imagine.

Think about this: a typical scenario might be a person who has a Facebook, Twitter and Gmail account—and probably a work email too—although I imagine most family member’s are less concerned with work email and understand that companies and organizations have exclusive rights to their employee’s email accounts. Ultimately, however, your virtual fingerprints are everywhere. Gaining access after your death—should someone need or want to—can be potentially confusing and frustrating for everyone. And what if it goes completely against your last wishes? Do you want your family and possibly friends, noodling around in the remains of your virtual life?

All sort of websites have emerged to help you figure out these existential questions and more. Some of the sites, like, are for the living to remember and memorialize the dead. Some sites, like, are virtual vaults that keep usernames and passwords safe until you die and the info is then released to selected friends and family members. And still other sites, like, allow you to craft out messages while you are still alive that will then only be released to friends and family upon your death.

Despite the best efforts of Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and others to address the post-mortem needs of their members and the people who survive them, it’s still an ungainly, swirling, complex mass of legal, moral and ethical issues. It seems progress is being made, but I think it will always be a messy business the more you and virtual you become intertwined and perhaps ultimately, indistinguishable.

Death + the Web

Happy First Birthday, DeathRef!

Believe it or not, the Death Reference Desk officially launched a year ago last July (with some content seeded in June to get us started). Gadzooks!

It all started when death and dying practices professor John approached librarian Meg about setting up a site where he could post death-related news links that he would otherwise put on Facebook or email to friends (and which friends, including librarian Kim, would constantly email to him). After much brainstorming — including the librarians pulling in the reference service idea — Meg created the site in a caffeine-induced fever dream. The rest is less history than designing the future.

Here are our most popular posts to date!

1,258 — Premature Burial Device Patents
1,021 — Dead Bodies Having Sex: the Backstory
989 — Deathly Art at DIA
757 — Blue Screen of Death… Memorial Tattoo?
661 — The Impossibility of Identifying the Dead in Haiti

And the top five search strings:

373 — memorial tattoos
268 — death reference desk
204 — corpse flower
123 — death masks of famous people
95 — memorial tattoo

Two deal with memorial tattoos, and there are many other tattoo-themed search terms that send people to our site: “memorial tattoo ideas,” “memorial tattoo designs,” “cremation tattoo” and many more. This is a pet interest of John’s, in fact, he’ll be speaking about memorial tattoos at a public lecture July 20th in New York City. He’ll post more about this soon, but here are the vitals in the meantime.

Hey! We now have a Facebook Page! Ironically, or perhaps just “finally,” we have come back around to posting content on Facebook, now with our own group page. Like us, love us and confuse all your stalkers trolling your Likes and Interests!

And don’t forget our DeathRef Twitter account, affectionately called the Death Feed. While we tweet links to our own posts here, we also throw out additional content that we don’t have the time or inclination to write full posts about. In addition, we have internal editorial guidelines / a collection and redistribution policy so to speak, known colloquially as “taste,” that prevents us from wallowing in schlocky, scandalous content on the DRD website (Pets Eat Dead Owner! 50 Wacky Coffins! and so forth). But some of that stuff still makes the Twitter Death Feed just for the heck of it, and it’s a good way to say yep, we’re still here, even when posts are long in coming.

Which brings us to… sometimes posts are long in coming. As our About page says, we suffer full-time jobs and part-time lives, and it’s also sum-sum-summah time! Rather than All DeathRef, All the Time, we’ve been dragging our pasty carcasses out into the sunshine. You should try it. It’s awesome.

Also of note: despite the low count in the DeathRef Questions category, Kim and Meg actually do field reference questions, usually one or two per month, but most of them are private issues that overlap legal and medical concerns that we don’t post for reasons of confidentiality. (We’re also not doctors or lawyers and can’t give related advice, but we do try to track down appropriate, useful services local to the patron.)

It’s been a great year, folks — we look forward to many more!

Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Funeral Industry

Digital Death Day! (Is Every Day)

Virtual Life after Death
Peregrine Andrews, BBC News (May 22, 2010)

Last week, May 20th, was the first Digital Death Day, an unconference in California of funeral directors, digital identity professionals, attorneys, technologists, entrepreneurs and obituary enthusiasts to share concerns and probably a few crazy-interesting ideas about managing digital identity after death.

Despite DeathRef being followed by digitaldeathday on May 4th, I have been sucked into the void of Other Responsibilities and neglected to pay attention until, oh, May 20th, as the unconference was actually happening. Bad librarian! Suffice it to say, it looked pretty darn cool. It appears that notes, podcasts and such are still being compiled. We’ll link them once they’re up. In the meantime,

The BBC also gets in on the action (article linked above), discussing the issue of digital assets such as domain names, sponsored Twitter accounts and virtual property in online games, as well as memorizing at social networking sites, or otherwise continued online engagement with the person’s profile, as though the person weren’t dead at all. This practice has been criticized as prolonging the grieving process, though others argue that it merely facilitates it.

Good stuff. As this post title suggests, Every Day is Digital Death Day — we’ll keep vigilant for what else emerges from the unconference and, of course, elsewhere on this topic.

Death + the Web Death Ethics Grief + Mourning

Fog Is Rolling in Thick, My Son Is Drowning

Mom Shellie Ross’ Tweet about Son’s Death Sparks Debate Over Use of Twitter During Tragedy
Emily Friedman, ABC News (December 16, 2009)

Announcing a Child’s Death on Twitter
Lisa Belkin, New York Times Motherlode blog (December 17, 2009)

A popular “mommy blogger” who tweeted about her toddler’s sudden death Monday has been facing considerable backlash for using Twitter while her unattended son was apparently drowning — and again during a time generally reserved for meatspace grief-stricken horror.

Cleaning out the family chicken coop with her eleven-year-old son, Shellie Ross of Florida tweeted at 5:22pm, “Fog is rolling in thick scared the birds back in the coop.” Minutes later, her son called 911 — his two-year-old brother was discovered unconscious at the bottom of the pool. Ross tweeted again about a half hour later, appealing to her community of followers to “Please pray like never before, my 2 yr old fell in the pool.” The boy could not be saved; five hours later, a tribute tweet of sorts followed from Ross (“Remembering my million dollar baby”) along with a few photos of her young son.

The internet has been eating her alive over this, from accusations of being a negligent mother to not knowing how to mourn properly. Twitter has become king in spreading news of celebrity deaths (including death rumors and pranks), but evidently is still deemed an inappropriate medium by which to relay personal, close death and grief — to say nothing of in-the-moment updates.

Ross, however, didn’t “tweet-by-tweet the accident,” as she told Additionally, she seems to have relied heavily on her online community as her main network of support, a not uncommon trend with social networking (despite having disgusted many of her followers with this incident, with several wondering whether this was some kind of sick joke).

It was a foul, arguably unnatural move — but the last thing the mother of a dead son needs is to be told she’s doing it wrong. With over 5000 followers, Ross, or Military_Mom on Twitter, had updated on the status of the fog, the sort of mundane, who-cares, barely literate statement fashionable amongst compulsive tweeters. Then all of a sudden something was actually happening. The initial tweet was panic — oh help us God — a mad scramble for emotional support and a holy miracle. The second tweet serves as a quick memorial but also a meek follow-up — she left her friends hanging in the drama of her life, and she was responsible for their held atttention. Should she have been bawling out her eyes instead? Who’s to say she wasn’t?

Then again, she was responsible for the safety of her child — not for the clarification and closure needs of her internet community, many of whom she has probably never met in person. But that doesn’t make the comfort she derived from them — either from their concerned responses or simply in the telling — imaginary or less important than non-virtual interaction (though one certainly hopes she also tends to the needs of her older son, who may have been responsible for failing to close the latch on the gate surrounding the pool).

The worst part of this story (aside from the death itself, of course) is that the brutal criticism of her actions — her chosen means of expressing fear and grief, which were modeled on her normal behavior — are now preventing her from having any sort of grief process at all. She’s too busy fighting off attackers and giving fiery interviews with major news outlets where she calls anyone who criticizes her “a small-minded asshole who deserves to rot in hell.”

Sure. Yikes. But c’mon, vultures — stand down. This woman may have fumbled at pivotal moments of her life. But who is expected to excel at handling her child’s death? Who is prepared to battle strangers who vilify the integrity of this worst possible pain.

Death + Popular Culture Death + the Web Grief + Mourning

Tweeting Grief: Yep, We’re Sad. And Sarcastic. And Delivering Sales Calls, Late.

Detecting Sadness in 140 Characters: Sentiment Analysis and Mourning Michael Jackson on Twitter
Elsa Kim and Sam Gilbert with Michael J. Edwards and Erhardt Graeff
Web Ecology Project (August 18, 2009)

via Fast Company, “Has Twitter Handicapped Our Ability to Mourn?”
(Dan Macsai, August 20, 2009)

FAIL WHALE MichaelIt was bound to happen, in fact, I’m surprised it took this long — a hand-coded analysis of 1,860,427 tweets about Michael Jackson’s death to determine whether we’re sad or sarcastic, and whether other humans can detect it. Key findings from the Web Ecology Project, a research group in Boston that focuses on online community and culture, include:

  • At its peak, the conversation about Michael Jackson’s death on Twitter proceeded at a rate of 78 tweets per second.
  • Roughly 3/4 of tweets about Jackson’s death that use the word “sad” actually express sadness, suggesting that sentiment analysis based on word usage is fairly accurate.
  • That said, there is extensive disagreement between human coders about the emotional content of tweets, even for emotions that we might expect would be clear (like sadness).
  • Tweets expressing personal, emotional sadness about the Jackson’s death showed strong agreement among coders while commentary on the auxiliary social effects of Jackson’s death showed strong disagreement.
  • We argue that this pattern in the “understandability” of certain types of communication across Twitter is due to the way the platform structures the expression of its users.

Presumably this last finding refers to the 140 or less character limit. Brevity is the soul of twit. It can also lend itself to stilted expression, leading to factual tones and shallow-sounding proclamations (whether or not reticence is a traditional hallmark of grief).

I must, however, disagree with the referring article’s summation: That “Twitter has handicapped our ability to mourn.” Twitter just happens to be the communication toy du jour. People aren’t using it to mourn, they’re using it because they’re using it for everything else: to broadcast breakfast, to announce locations, to link, network, connect, spam, waste time and save lives. If it’s contributing to degraded mourning and grief, that’s because it’s guilty of comparable, more common and entrenched communication blunders (however admittedly interesting and useful for some communication and organizing behaviors).

Twitter is just one (minor) tool: presumably people are expressing themselves more fully (and we know they have) through talking with friends and family, writing lengthy blog posts, making tribute videos, moonwalking poorly and watching other people moonwalk poorly, and buying gads of MJ swag.

I’m also not so sure about this (from the original study):

There were also tweets that combined emotion and objective reportage on the events of the tweeter’s life, including: “Feeding the baby and feeling sad about Michael Jackson! He left is [sic] too soon!” and “Shocked by Michael Jackson’s death. Such a sad, sad day. Going out for a couple of sales calls, late.”

This combination of life status update and emotional update leads to consensus among the coders, perhaps because the accompanying life status update helps clarify that the tweeter is not being sarcastic.

I don’t detect sarcasm in those expressions, but the inclusion of self-reportage gives tweets an air of attention deficiency and mild narcissism (yes, it’s your Twitter account, but is this really about you? even if it’s natural to connect oneself to the deceased [and necessary in the case of celebrity death — otherwise, wherein lies the personal interest and investment?]). The second example about the sales calls, especially, sounds indifferent and distant to the point of postmodern perfection, which I suppose can be its own form of genuine grief and numb. But to me, that doesn’t make it “sad,” even if the tweeter says “sad,” twice.

Oh, social science. Now I’d like to see research done on this research article, hand-coding and analyzing the hand-coders analyses and rating their abilities to perceive emotion.