Understanding Death In The Digital Age

Understanding Death In the Digital Age

Death is something that has been part of my daily life since birth; it’s second nature and completely normal. The paradox of living your life through death is one with many layers, and indescribable in a lot of ways. But to give you an idea, you could say that I am the real life Veda from the movie “My Girl.” Like her, I am the daughter of a Funeral Director and lived on the upper level of the funeral home. There wasn’t a day I didn’t see a casket, a body, or was asked to “do makeup” on the deceased. To say that death takes up a large part of my life would be an understatement.

Death is something people do not discuss in great detail. It tends to be something people want to just get over with. Dealing with our immortality, for instance, doesn’t make for appropriate dinner conversation. In fact, there aren’t many places people can confront the issue of dying in any space. So when it gets to be our time to grieve, we’re not certain how to behave, how to mourn, or what the expectations are. And when you’re not sure of something, anything can happen.

Enter social media. The new way to grieve is with #RIP and the constant flow of photos, tribute pages, and obituary videos. This is what grieving has become in 21st century. The oddity is that we it’s so difficult for us to verbally discuss death but are perfectly ok with watching videos, seeing pictures, and reading text. It would be wrong to say that this isn’t something positive in terms of normalizing death, but it’s also interesting to see just how vulnerable and open we’re willing to be in front of a computer and not with each other.

But as someone who has been very comfortable around death, how do I grieve? My father, the founder of the funeral home that was such a big part of my life, died recently in 2017. About six years ago he retired so my two brothers and I inherited the business. Before my father passed away, he was a community guy, a political figure, and the guy EVERYONE loved. When he passed, I became anxious about showing my grief in front of people that I hadn’t seen in 15-20 years. His funeral guests came from all around the country and all walks of life: from the politicians to the local bodega owners.

To my surprise, I found myself comforting them more than they were comforting me. I stepped into a different role. The way I ended up grieving my father was by honoring him and praising his accomplishments on my social platforms. I did not post anything about my father while he was in the hospital but after he passed, my brothers and I collectively wrote a joint announcement. The outpouring was overwhelming in the most beautiful way possible. It gave us comfort, love, and insight into how many people my father touched over the years of service and his life. A couple of days after his burial, I wrote a small tribute to him on my Instagram, but just a few years ago, I would have never thought that I could be so public writing about such a personal thing. But there was something inside of my soul that wanted to celebrate my father, who wanted to tell the world he was gone, he was great, and that we are okay. Social media gave me the platform to be heard– to have a place to let out my feelings, my thoughts, and to receive support. It allowed me to be public about death and mourning.

Over the holidays, I was casually scrolling through my Instagram feed and came across a picture of a casket being lowered into a grave. Off to the side, a little boy (around 10-years-old) stood next to the grave site. There was also a picture of this boy carrying the casket to the site with family members. This was the first time I had ever seen someone post such intimate photos of a funeral on Instagram. I was dumbfounded and a bit shaken that someone would post such an incredibly personal moment with such a young boy, who happened to be the son of the deceased. I have seen many tributes with photos of the person who had just passed, but never of the casket or the actual funeral. I found myself becoming slightly judgmental and not sure how to digest it. I then stopped myself and said, “Read the caption.” The caption was long, and by the end I had tears streaming down my face. I felt very grateful for her story, but more importantly: her vulnerability and honesty. I felt that her post was exactly what society needs to feel comfortable with death and grieving. The initial shock I was feeling was my old mindset, but we are in different times now. I have to recalibrate my brain to accept the new social media world we are living in.

So far, my personal experience with grieving and social media has not been overly negative.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve on these platforms, but what I will say is that discretion and respect play a huge part, from both the person mourning and the folks who are witness to that mourning. Knowing when to post and what to say is severely important. Prior to my brothers and I posting about our dad, there were some folks who posted on their personal pages about his passing. At first, I felt a bit disrespected. But I had to reel myself back in and remember that my dad was also important to many others. People get nervous, scared, and are genuinely hurt. You don’t always do the right thing when you’re experiencing any of those emotions, but what’s important to remember is that in the end, people are just looking for comfort, support, and community.  

Grieving the passing of a loved one can ignite a sense of endless loneliness. People feel lost, stuck, and scared. And after all of the funeral activity, phone calls, and text messages, one day it just stops. Your support system disappears. This is where social platforms can become dangerous for the person in mourning. I’ve seen stories of people literally posting everyday about their loss, or posting tons of old pictures of when the deceased was still alive. Oftentimes people do not realize that this level of posting might not help you heal; in fact, it may just keep your pain alive and fresh by reliving moments that you can no longer experience in real life. When I see the affects of people who stay stuck in their grief, it looks as though they too have lost their lives. While grieving is a different process for everyone, it’s important to be aware of your mourning and to allow it to pass when it’s ready. Because when it comes to death in the digital age, mourning is something we all end up having to encounter, whether wilfully or not.

Full print interview in UNDO MAG: Issue 7 

Writer & Artist: Marisol Martinez

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