Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

Death 2.0

Americans are slowly integrating death into their lives through technology.

Online memorials. Funeral crowdfunding. Deathbed tweeting. A major but relatively quiet revolution is taking place within the universe of death and dying in America as we gradually confront our final taboo through digital technology. (Sex, our other historical taboo, is now anywhere and everywhere.) For the last half-century or so, the end of life in this country has been largely a forbidden topic in public conversation. On a personal level, death and dying have proved to be too emotional and sensitive subjects to discuss with strangers. On a grander level, death and dying have been commonly viewed as the (quite literally) ultimate “un-American” experience by being contrary to our defining values of youth, vitality, achievement, and independence.

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But that is slowly changing as Americans integrate the end of life of friends, family members, and even themselves into their online footprint. Online memorials—remembering the passing of someone on a website—have been around for about two decades but are now becoming much more sophisticated with greater information storage and virtual reality graphics, principally on Facebook. (Adding artificial intelligence to memorial sites will be next, resurrecting dead people as avatars to live happily on in the digital world.) People are also going to websites to help families pay for burials, another way the Internet is proving to be a positive force for the grieving.

It is the real-time nature, immediacy, and brevity of Twitter, however, that is really bringing death and dying into the open. NPR commentator Scott Simon’s recent tweeting of his mother’s deathbed vigil can be seen as the tipping point of what we might call Death 2.0; it was an act of courage that broke through the nearly impenetrable wall of publicly describing the dying process of a loved one as it took place. Kate Granger, a British doctor, recently tweeted the not-so-pretty details of her own journey towards death, a decision that is sure to become more acceptable and perhaps even commonplace in the years ahead.

While the digitalization of death and dying is a new phenomenon, it represents a return of sorts to a traditional practice both here and around the world. In the 18th century and much of the 19th, death in the United States was considered a “member of the family,” as Sherwin Nuland pointed out in his 1994 book How We Die, so much so that doors on houses were often built to accommodate coffins and parlors were designed to hold mourners. The prevalence of death sparked a fascination with mortality among Victorian Americans, many of them preserving the memory of dead children via what would today be considered macabre photograph albums. By the late 19th century, however, death and dying in Western society was fast becoming seen as distasteful and grotesque, a view that accelerated through the 20th century. Medical science was becoming remarkably good at prolonging life, but such progress appeared to be having an inverse effect on how we viewed death. Death and dying became institutionalized and professionalized, a service business much like any other, except there was a dead person involved. Bodies were quickly whisked away from view, and cemeteries developed outside of cities as a (futile) attempt to keep death at bay. The end of life—an event as natural as the beginning of life—was increasingly perceived as wholly unnatural, a mistake that had to be corrected at all costs. We are now paying a heavy financial and ethical price for all this. 

Will Americans ever dance, gamble, and drink in cemeteries, as many Europeans did in the Middle Ages (an example of what Philippe Aries referred to in his 1974 “Western Attitudes Toward Death” as the “promiscuity between the living and the dead”)? Unlikely. But the popularity of social networking represents our best and greatest hope to “re-naturalize” death by making it part of everyday life, something that is long overdue in this country.

Larry Samuel, Ph.D., is a cultural historian and the founder of Culture Planning LLC.

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