Ghosts in the Machine
Social media has changed the way we mourn, for the better.
After my father died unexpectedly in 2011, I went home to Virginia to help my sisters attend to his personal effects. His 60 years of life were soon dismantled with startling and mind-numbing speed. We sold his green truck, emptied his apartment, sorted through his things and then packed those up and sold them too. We had a to-do list, and we completed it. But when it came time to share the news beyond my immediate circle of friends and family, I froze. Social media seemed to be the quickest way to let people know why I had disappeared and why I would continue to be a ghost in my own way. But it felt wrong, even ghoulish, to announce the death of a parent in the same venue I might a new job. At that time, at least on my Facebook feed, people were rarely morose — at the worst, posting links to emo songs to hint at a breakup.
My memories of that feeling resurfaced recently when I came across the final Instagram post of Kyle Jean-Baptiste. There is nothing extraordinary about the image itself. In late August, the 21-year-old Broadway actor shared a photograph of a tray full of decadent treats: miniature bags of caramel popcorn, cookies, salty pretzel sticks dipped in white chocolate. ‘‘Should I destroy my body ... or be good?’’ he wrote.
Jean-Baptiste was in a celebratory mood. He had recently wrapped his run as Jean Valjean in ‘‘Les Miserables.’’ He was the youngest actor to play the lead part on Broadway, and the first African-American. The rest of the summer was supposed to be a victory lap for Jean-Baptiste, who was scheduled to start performing alongside Jennifer Hudson in ‘‘The Color Purple’’ in a few weeks. But he would never join that cast, nor would he even post another photo. Sometime in the early hours of Aug. 29, he fell off a fourth-story fire escape in Brooklyn. He died a few hours later at the hospital. As the news of his tragic end began to circulate, friends and fans gathered in the comments section below his final missive, placing their version of wreaths and candles in the form of condolences and their appreciations of his short career.
Perhaps the most profound side effect is that death no longer obeys any laws of finality.
In an essay they contributed to the ‘‘Handbook of Death and Dying,’’ the sociologists William R. Wood and John B. Williamson observe that people in the developed world have managed to banish death from their everyday lives — no small feat. ‘‘In the United States and Western Europe, dying is now primarily a private and often technical affair, hidden behind the closed doors of the hospital, the mortuary and the funeral home,’’ they write. Traditional mourning rituals, across the world, establish boundaries around grieving, to help the bereaved process the passing of a life. In the Philippines, for example, many families hold vigils over several days that allow mourners to be with the bodies of the deceased. Jewish tradition has shiva, a period of up to seven days in which families stay at home, receiving visitors. Even in households with no such traditions, obituaries for loved ones tend to include instructions for sending condolences and flowers for those who want to pay their respects from afar. But those norms evaporate on social media. There, mourning feels increasingly public, more communal and more collective.
The near pervasiveness of social technology has delivered death back into our daily interactions. With the exception of our friends and closest kin, we typically encounter news of deaths through social media. The same feed that informs us about sports scores and plot twists on ‘‘Empire’’ also tells us, without any ceremony, that a life has come to an end.
This could be a blurring of a sacred line, the conflation of the profound with something profane. But this flattening has a benefit: We can no longer avert our eyes from tragedy. We have seen how people used social media to ensure that Americans did not ignore the deaths of people like Freddie Gray, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland, amplifying them into a rallying cry for justice. The mass shootings in Paris and San Bernardino felt, somehow, closer to our lives because they played out on our screens and in our browsers.
What felt unimaginable in 2011 after my father’s passing is becoming the new norm. In the weeks and months after Jean-Baptiste’s death, family, friends and fans continued to congregate in his comments, establishing an impromptu memorial. And they kept going back to pay their respects. They wrote messages of support, and on Dec. 3, they left notes and photos in his various feeds, celebrating what would have been his 22nd birthday.
Perhaps the most profound side effect is that death no longer obeys any laws of finality. When funneled through social media, death lingers longer than a traditional mourning period might call for. We know that time can be influenced by physics: Clocks run slower at extremely high speeds and faster at higher altitudes — where they can begin to escape the pull of gravity. Is it possible that social media somehow warps our notion of time, too? By design, our feeds are largely ephemeral, and we treat them that way, parceling out seemingly insignificant moments — until, all of a sudden, we stop. That collection of moments, once thought to be of infinite supply, will now outlive your physical form, freezing in time the flow of your whole existence. Jean-Baptiste’s Instagram, and by extension his life, looks to be merely on hold — as though it could pick back up tomorrow.
Proof enough of the change in our culture is that Facebook and other social-media platforms have introduced procedures for handling profiles after their owners die. Families may decide whether to preserve a loved one’s old accounts; if they do, the accounts become memorials, designated places to lay a digital bouquet. Jean-Baptiste’s accounts remain up, to let his friends and fans mourn — but also to keep them from forgetting that he lived.