Mourn For Me

An exploration of the grieving process in the age of Facebook.

Funeral selfies in action! Michelle does not appear amused. 

Funeral selfies in action! Michelle does not appear amused. 

Mourn For Me

Directed & Edited by Courtney Hernandez

Mourn For Me Trailer

Selfies at Funerals

Last week, the Tumblr Selfies at Funerals created a tidal wave of critical response leveled at the teens who take these selfies, the man who culled the posts into a stream, society for condoning such action, society for condemning such actions, and every iteration in between. 

So obviously, this has struck a cord. These trends generate ickiness because we claim they break imaginary online etiquette rules. These teens are criticized for representing and broadcasting emotional cues discordant with their situation. Social media did not create this duplicity, but amplified it. 

A selfie posted on Instagram is an instant update, a snapshot of the mood of an ephemeral moment.  That Instagram archives this photo assigns the image a false sense of curation. That these images are publicly searchable through the use of hashtags assigns the image a deeper context.

Teens have been bored, annoyed, distracted, and disrespectful at funerals for years. Only recently, does society have the tools to glean this sentiment into a “trend.” 

Scott Simon & Life-Tweeting

As the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, Scott Simon has a highly active Twitter account. In addition to tweeting to promote his shows and guests, Simon tweets often about his personal life. His tweets vary from comments on the impended royal birth, baseball, and what he had for dinner. Like most users on Twitter, his professional and personal lives blur into one stream. 

On July 16th of this year while on vacation with his family in California, Simon tweeted that his elderly mother was just admitted to the hospital for emergency surgery and asked that his followers “hold a thought for her.”  After this seemingly innocuous tweet, Simon continued tweeting about his family and their vacation. Beginning July 22nd, Simon’s tweets began to suggest his mother’s prognosis was not good. From this point, until his mother’s passing, Simon’s tweets almost exclusively chronicled moments and conversations with his mother in her hospital room. As his mother’s condition worsened, these tweets became more and more personal.

He shared his musings on what exists after death, began to wrestle with his grief, and captured incredibly poignant, intimate interactions between him and his mother. (You can read all his tweets here.)

Because Simon was a public figure with more than a million Twitter followers, this attracted much attention. With this attention came discussion about what place social media holds in our lives. Some commenters of these stories questioned the “appropriateness” of live-tweeting his mother’s death, calling the entire event gauche.

The much larger, and more vocal majority, however, called this event a compelling and haunting tribute to grief in our digitally documented world. 

Social media creates a tension between “real life” and the user’s curated online persona. Since all user’s navigate this tension, we have learned to expect a cognitive dissonance between online and reality. The tension between what is considered private and public is also important in this conversation. Users like Scott Simon disrupt this tension when they use their social media profiles to insert what society considers private moments into a public space. The act of mourning and grief have only been very recently sequestered into the private sphere, and technology and digital spaces like Facebook and Twitter can help restate them to their original public, communal space. 

This video was produced by a French group that calls themselves the Glee Mobbers. They were created in 2011 and have used their Facebook page to recruit, coordinate and produce videos of their flashmobs. Only 8 days following the death of Cory Monteith, one of the stars of Glee, the group used their existing networks to plan a flashmob tribute to take place October 6th. In the time between, the groups organizers encouraged their members to contribute to a memorial picture collage and bring flowers or candles to a physical memorial site.

As a character on a show popular with teenagers, who already use social media sites like Tumblr in higher numbers than the rest of the population, Cory Monteith already had highly curated fan pages like the French Glee Mobbers. These fan pages, at his death, quickly and nearly seamlessly transitioned into memorial pages. The lightening speed at which this memorialization happened was due in part to their previous existence.

Even before digital technology, the death of a celebrity was a public event and spectacle. However, digital technology has increased the speed, scale, and scope of access the public has to celebrities in their lives and their deaths. Breaking news can be communicated in moments rather than minutes with tools like Twitter. Pictures and images take precedent in this moment as the communicate information even faster. In expressing mourning, fan art depicting the deceased celebrity are more popular than long-form reflections because they can be created and distributed faster. When Cory Monteith passed away suddenly, news of his death spread like wildfire, tweeted out by entertainment news organizations and instantly retweeted by hundreds of thousands followers.

In the days following his death, Monteith’s name spiked in Google searches and continue to trend on Twitter as other celebrities, as well as fan, left messages of condolence. This spike, however, was ephemeral and after several days, search and twitter trends dropped to the level they were before his death. Though the high trending level dissipated, fans who had maintained fan pages continued to generate posts and pictures tagged with “in memory” or “rip.”

Daniel Harris, in his article “Celebrity Death,” hypothesizes society’s fascination with celebrity death is a way to play out the rituals of grief with little personal investment. Thus the documentation of celebrities around their deaths centers on their personal lives. They are portrayed in the context of family relations, as a mother or father, daughter or son, sister or brother, rather than through the context the majority of the public knows them, their job. This can be seen in the types of images and conversations that centered around Monteith’s death. His fanbase focused nearly exclusively on his relationship with Lea Michelle, his at the time girlfriend and co-star of Glee. His fans forged strong emotional connections to he and Lea’s characters on the show, Glee, and that sense of “one true pairing” was amplified by their off-screen relationship. This intense emotional connection became ripe fodder for trolls, as seen in this video.

Digital death would appear to be another consumable, quickly processed and churned through for the next bit of breaking news. Celebrity death also often creates a space for grief tourism and subsequently a space for grief trolls. 

Sunday

Sunday and I were only ever casual friends. We had many mutual friends and acquaintances, and though we often hung out together, in was always in the context of larger groups. Because he and my brothers danced in the same company, he appeared in many family photos at such events. His close friends were my husband and my close friends, but their relationships blossomed when they moved to New York City, while we stayed in Texas. On Facebook, this web of friends, pictures, shared liked, and mutually attended events implied a much deeper relationship than our “real life” one. When Sunday suffered his brain aneurysm, word was spread via Facebook. Calls for prayers and vigilance were posted on his page and by his friends. Facebook had recently adapted the “tagging” feature, so much like Twitter, friends could “tag” Sunday in a post, as well as pictures. Every like, every comment, pushed information about Sunday to the top of his friends’ newsfeeds. 

I started to receive text messages and Facebook messages from casual friends asking me for information about Sunday’s condition, though I knew no more than what had appeared on Facebook. As his condition worsened, his siblings posted on Sunday’s wall to update everyone. But as hundreds of thoughts of well wishes continued to be posted on his Facebook wall, health updates were often lost under this deluge. And even though information was being posted on Sunday’s Facebook wall, there were still people who were not friends with him on Facebook and thus unable to access these updates. Then 48 hours in his coma, a rumor began that Sunday had passed away. The tone of his wall and Facebook shifted dramatically and nearly instantaneously. To combat this misinformation, other more publicly accessible sites were created. 

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After Sunday passed away, several of these sites shifted to fundraising hubs to help with his medical and funeral costs. A friend of Sunday’s created a print to be sold to raise money. Some simply had a donation button. Because Sunday cultivated “real-life” relationships in many disparate groups, mourning his passing took on a similar splintered appearance. His church in New York City created a page on their site to post updated information for its church members, many of whom were not Facebook friends with Sunday. 

Eventually, Facebook was the only site that indiscriminately included all his friends, from friends in Texas, coworkers in New York, to acquaintances spread across the globe. Because Facebook provided an innate social, not familial, structure, it proved the democratizing form of mourning for Sunday. 

In the time that has passed since Sunday’s death, the publicly accessible sites and Facebook groups have lost their purpose. We did stopped paying the subscription for friendsofsunday.com. The site is now a space-holding blog with post titles like “Steps to make Out with a Girl in 40 Seconds or Less for Real?” I occasionally see the image created as a fundraising memorial on Pinterest boards titled “Penmanship Porn.” 

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Digital artifacts may be immune to decay, but like their analog counterparts, they are not immune to reappropriation. 

Tracy Fisher

I first learned Laurel Fisher through a coworker when I began asking around for possible interviewees for the Mourn For Me videos. Laurel’s daughter, Tracy, had passed away suddenly in freshman year of college. Laurel’s mourning took a public face as her Facebook page, whose setting is public and searchable, took on a memorialization as well as social function. Since I had no personal connection to the Fishers, this case study is really an experiment what I could find of Tracy’s digital afterlife. Do the efforts of friends and family to memorialize and archive a lost life enhance or prolong this digital presence?

In the fall of 2009 a day before her 19th birthday, Tracy Fisher was a freshman at The University of Missouri. While crossing a street with friends, she collapsed and was pronounced dead a few hours later from an apparent pulmonary embolism. News of her death was reported only somewhat locally, published in the local papers of Columbia, Missouri and the Dallas/Fort Worth area in which Tracy grew up. In my Google searchs, I also found many of the organizations Tracy had been involved in, such as those at Richardson High School, Jewish Community Center, and Camp Young-Judaea-Texas also published articles of condolence on their websites.

The day after Tracy’s death, Laurel began posting memories in the form of pictures, notes, and videos. Each post heralded copious likes and comments of encouragement from friends and family. In these comments, Tracy is referenced in both the present and past tense.

Starting around Thanksgiving time, the trend of these postings shift and become to share themes with a holiday, event, or even her mother’s state of mind. For example, on December 10th 2009, Laurel posted a picture of Tracy playing by the pool with the title “Dreaming of summer.” The next week, each picture Laurel posted showed Tracy at previous Hanukkah nights. 

The frequency of Laurel’s posts of Tracy has not declined over time, though the content has expanded. Sparkle and pink have become symbols of Tracy’s legacy to her mother. So instead of just pictures of Tracy, images and memes are included in Laurel’s frequent postings. In fact, though I could not find evidence of a previous Facebook account (I assume because it was “memorialized” as per Facebook protocol.), a Tracy fisher account was created Feb. 25th, 2012. 

Instagram

Instagram is a photo sharing site with a tagging feature, that allows users to tag photos with hashtags. Clicking on the hashtags then allows the users to see the aggregated list of pictures tagged with the same hashtag. This aggregation only works if the user profile is public. As of now, there is now way to choose which pictures are private, seen only by the users selected followers, and which ones are public. 

Instagram is not a site to foster larger conversations, but to contribute to a stream. By that nature, Instagram becomes a site that lends less to mourning, and more to the memorialization of figures, peoples, events, or things. I observed this memorialization in several ways.

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User accounts like selena_quintanilla_4ever function as fan pages and post pictures and videos exclusively of the person it is memorializing. In every post on these fan accounts, similar hashtags are used.

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Occasionally, these users ask that followers tag their own pictures of the memorialized person using the set arrangement of hashtags, like those seen above. However, including such a large number of hashtags, though related, does not further narrow the searchability of this picture. Rather, the effect is one of scattering: each hashtags places this picture in a different contextual stream. 

Another way I observe this memorialization taking place is through the use of the hashtag #rip and its iterations. Instagram code does not distinguish case, among other things, in hashtags, so the #rip thread contains references to deceased celebrities, loved ones, pets, seasons, and even a rip tide. Tagging pictures with #rip becomes more a shorthand of mourning and loss for the user posting the photo rather than a way to join a larger conversation. Even more specific tagging, like #ripkane, though it narrows the scope of this conversation, does not filter based on content. Images are sorted chronologically, starting with the most recently tagged with the hashtag. If a hashtag is added in a comment of a picture, no matter how old, the picture will move to the beginning of the image search. This is interesting as it means community-oriented mourning on Instagram is very time sensitive. Users must post immediately to be included in the cloud of corresponding images.