We often explore how online is changing aspects of our social and romantic lives, but the way we grieve is also evolving alongside and through technology.
Dr Scott’s work grew from exploring grief writing both to and about the dead, which these days is often expressed on the internet. As part of this work she discovered a private online memorial to ‘Ted’, who ended his own life on 12th October 1959.
The language we use in discourses around suicide is often individualistic, influenced by conceptions of the act as criminal in the past, and also often implying self indulgence. The Oxford dictionary focuses on the existence of intention, a problematic concept for some given the potential for suicidal intents to be unconscious. There is a conception is an individual event that ends the suffering of an individual, at the cost of then inflicting this suffering on others, from the more trivial frustration of delayed commuters to the grief of those close to the individual.
People generally deal with bereavement through ‘post death rituals’, those studying this area have long advocated actions to ‘resolve’ this grief as a positive action that allows people to ‘move on’. Some writers have argued for an alternative model of grief that the interdependence people have leads to a link that continues, albeit moving to a new type of relationship. People still have a place for the deceased in their lives, although the public perception is often that this is potentially unhealthy.
Memorialisation of the deceased seems to be a strong part of human nature, and such practices have been present and evolving for thousands of years. Sometimes this is physical memorial such as burial mounds, sometimes in ideas such as stories, songs and poems. Physical memorials have long progressed with emerging technology, incorporating first names, then images, and more recently photographs and digital media on grave stones.
A more recent development is the use of obituaries in print media, a memorial often reserved for those of particular notoriety, character or social status. Jones has argued that the incorporation of print into death rituals has depersonalised the announcement of death in that the message no longer needs to be delivered by a human. This has continued to develop with the increased ability to publish and lower cost of doing so. Websites such as ‘MuchLoved’ have appeared and allowed the bereaved of those who would not be featured in a traditional obituary to take part in this grieving practice.
Although the web allows for publicly available resources, there is a significant mixture of public, semi-public and private online memorials. They are often difficult to access through search engines or hidden either deliberately or not behind logins. Navigation of such material is sometimes facilitates by ‘web rings’ with mutual links which allow people to explore the mourning of other people in similar situations; building communities linked by the experience of grief rather than individuals themselves. Communities exist for those who have been bereaved through suicide, or certain illnesses such as cancer.
More recently mainstream social networking sites such as Facebook and myspace have used the lifetime presence of the deceased and shifting it into a memorial. This could be conceptualised as a virtual ‘open casket’, although the affordances of the technology make this a casket that is never closed.
This allows continuing bonds, meeting of those who share the experience of grief, and a connectedness around death. The traditional conception of grief as something that should be completed and ‘moved on’ from is challenged here by the relative permanence of such records. Conflicting conceptions of the benefits and drawbacks of this have led to public discussions of who owns such profiles after a person dies, and the appropriateness of them being inherited by their loved ones to memorialise or to close down.
So why would those affected by suicide turn to such memorials? The social stigma of suicide disenfranchises those bereaved, and online memorials can allow an expression of grief that deals with this. It also facilitates those struggling with the particular nuances of this kind of bereavement to make connections with others who are also challenged by these issues. This can become a community where the bereaved feel most at home, a community which is available for support asynchronously or twenty four hours of the day. This potentially also facilitates an outlet for challenging the stigma of suicide in society.
As the event of someone’s death ages there has been an increasing tendency to institutionalise it, with only accounts of lives and death that are notable living on in formal texts such as books or histories. In the case of the online memorial of ‘Ted’, the bereaved have attempted to continue the informal, more personal memorial decades after a death by suicide. This memorial continues to develop organically, keeping the personal narrative of this person active. In some senses it has evolved from originally telling the story of the deceased, to telling the story of two generations of the bereaved and the continuing effects they feel.
As ever, the way we conceptualise significant events in our lives and the way they are communicated by technology develops side by side. It is interesting to consider what part each plays in the other’s development, as often it is depicted that it is technology that pushes forward our social structures and the ways we understand them, whether we want them to move in that direction or not. Dr Scott’s work presents the case of memorials to the deceased, and particularly those who died by suicide, as an example of how complex the intertwined nature of these narratives actually is.
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