Mourning on Social Media

As mourning moves online, we need to consider how our mores apply there.

Posted Sep 29, 2014

If you want to learn more about this topic, we'll be discussing it on Tuesday (9/30) from 12-1pm ET on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, Washington's public radio station. Listen in or catch it on the podcast at .

Almost every part of our lives intersects with the internet at this point, and this is now true at the end of our lives as well. When people die, their online personas do not go with them, and for the people left behind, mourning has moved online in many different ways. Some of them are helpful, healthy, and valuable while others are not.

Researchers have looked at a few aspects of death and mourning online. The social media pages belonging to a person who has died often become memorial pages. Friends, associates, and, in some cases, fans, visit the page and leave thoughts and messages. Studies have shown that people find this to be a convenient way to share their mourning when they are not able to attend a funeral or memorial service [1].

These online memorial pages also become community spaces to discuss the deceased. Although most comments come in as people find out about someone's death, 40% of people who have participated in these kinds of discussions have gone back months later to read and post comments.

Interestingly, these memorials can also become competitive, with commenters jockeying to define the narrative of the person's life. Arguments can erupt when different groups (e.g. friends and parents) expect different narratives.

Some people debate the appropriateness of this type of public mourning, but in a way, it is nothing new. Funeral services and traditions like wearing black are all public ways of doing this. Social media is just bringing this into the internet age. It also comes with the benefit of having a community to grieve with, which can be quite comforting.

But not all social media expressions surrounding death are as well received or explained. The biggest outcry has been directed toward the funeral selfie. My favorite example? “Love my hair today. Hate why I’m dressed up. #funeral.”

Funeral selfies take us away from a question about technology and toward a question of respect. Is the person posting focused on their memories of the deceased, their grief, supporting others who are mourning a loved one? Or are they focused on themselves? The funeral selfie does not offer anything to a community of people who are mourning; it does not show any respect to the deceased, but it does demand personal attention. While young people who have a hard time dealing with grief may demand attention because they need help coping, the funeral selfie does not feel like that. It feels narcissistic and self-centered. And in the area of grief where traditions and rituals matter so much in terms of respect, that type of online exhibition is only likely to offend. It does not convey that the poster is mourning (which a non-selfie post might do); it shows that their attention is really on themselves and even conveys that they are demanding attention be shifted to them instead of on the deceased.

As with so many areas of life, we are working out what role social media can and should play. Death is one of the most sensitive, and the public nature of online posts means it will be yet another place where we will decide how our mores apply.


[1] Carroll, Brian, and Katie Landry. "Logging on and letting out: Using online social networks to grieve and to mourn." Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 30.5 (2010): 341-349.

 Image credit ben britten