Online memorials have been a relatively popular form of memorialisation for the best part of this century. They bear markings of birth and death, just as traditional gravestones, however, they allow for an exceptional amount of interaction within them – the bereaved can send messages to the deceased, upload pictures, music, art, poems, and even send virtual gifts.
In 2016, for my Master’s research I conducted a cyberethnography of online mourning, focusing on one particular online memorial website. Some of the memorials at that time had been active for nearly fifteen years, with the bereaved logging on to wish Happy Birthdays, Merry Christmases, and to inform the deceased about graduations, weddings, new additions to the family and friends joining them in death. I haven’t visited that website since I finished my degree, but a few weeks ago was suddenly consumed with curiosity to see if the website had been upgraded or had retained its early 2000s reminiscing aesthetic.
As I typed in the name of the website and pressed Enter, I was greeted with a laconic message that it had been shut down for financial reasons and a new memorial could be created elsewhere. My heart sank. It was hard to fathom that all of the heartache the online mourners poured into their messages, the careful curation of memorials some of them partook in, was just … gone.
Confronted with the emptiness of the screen, I thought of the people whose online mourning journeys I had followed. I thought of ‘Helen’ who incessantly posted messages to her late husband ‘Mark’ for years. ‘She is still fighting the fight, writing digital love letters every month’ – I wrote about her at the time. I cannot know if she was still doing so when the website was taken down. I thought of ‘Pauline’, who was also a widow, who pondered how she felt about writing messages to her darling ‘Richard’: Sometimes I feel so stupid writing to you, but I need to do it… tell you all you are missing, our girlies growing up beautifully, our [granddaughter] going through all her worries and happiness. I’ve got no one else to tell’.
I then did some researching online trying to find out whether a notice had been sent out prior to shutting down the website and discovered a reviewing website where several people were lamenting that their years and years-worth of time and effort, photos and messages were now irretrievable and how they felt immensely disrespected and even violated. One person admitted feeling heartbroken, as they had been participating on the memorial site for eleven years. Apparently a notice was sent out, but it is likely to have gone unnoticed by many people as some of them do passionately argue that there was no warning. Top of Form
Tim Hutchings remarks that among a variety of other benefits to be gained from online memorialisation, such as global access, quick assembly, easy storage, and ongoing editing, which all contributed to its increasing popularity, there is a sense that it is also immune to dangers of physical decay (Hutchings 2012:49). However, while this website was indeed not able to corrode, get weathered, knocked down in a physical sense, this occurrence was the ultimate testament on how shattering for people the illusion of permanence of the virtual can be.
Philosopher Patrick Stokes (2015) calls such deletion ‘a second death’ and claims that the dead persist as moral patients and their digital remains entrust upon us a moral duty of care. Here he talks about personal profiles that are like traces of a live persons’ activity, such as Facebook. Differently, online memorials are brought into existence by the bereaved who wish for a dedicated space to honour their loved ones. The bereaved are the ones that inscribe the memorials with meaning, and thus might feel obligated to upkeep a certain level of activity in the memorial. There is guilt associated with showing what the mourners think is appropriate care to the memorial, like in this example from my research: ‘Ive been avoiding this site like the plague for the last few weeks and feeling so darn guilty cus i dont want you to think that im ignoring you, though if there is an afterlife then you will know exactly how ive been feeling lately’. It is not hard to imagine the feelings of helplessness of not being able to protect your loved one from harm when the memorial is shut down.
This spurred me to think about the ethics of engaging with and representing digital cultures. Patricia G. Lange (2007) writes about YouTube content being ‘privately public and publicly private’. This was a similar situation with the memorial site, as the website in question did not require logging in in order to see the messages, and fell into an ethical grey area. My participation was limited to ‘lurking’ – reading without responding. A fly on the wall. I read other people’s pain and while I discussed the ethics of this research at length with my supervisors and was utterly dedicated to representing the stories justly, sensitively and anonymously, I can’t help but still know that fundamentally, I was the only one who benefited from this research.
I opened up a metaphorically dusted-over folder, titled ‘Amsterdam’ on my computer. I counted 35 documents, each storing digital copies of separate online mourning journeys, in textual form, some of them extending over a hundred pages and going back a decade. It is very likely that I am the sole keeper of these journeys now. Thousands upon thousands of words, fraught with pain, love, yearning and hope, now stripped of their comforting presence to the mourners by abrupt erasure and simply laid bare in a stranger’s computer. They’re there, but that is unknown to those who authored them. I keep questioning myself if they are safe, or held hostage.
Hutchings, T. (2012). ‘Wiring Death: Dying, Grieving and Remembering on the Internet, in Emotion, Identity and Death, Davies, Douglas J. and Park, Chang-Won. Eds.
Lange, P. (2007). “Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, pp. 13(1)
Stokes, P. (2015). ‘Deletion as second death: the moral status of digital remains’. Ethics Inf Technol. 17. pp. 237–248
Zibaite, S. (2017). Cybermourning: Reclaiming Ritual and Negotiating Care for the Dead. Master’s Thesis, University of Amsterdam. Available online