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death 2.0


it's time to talk about death again.

ok, so i happen to have an exhibition about death and magic coming up soon, but this post was primarily sparked by the experience of a friend and the recent passing of JG Ballard. this friend, whom i happen to know IRL, but only because i first knew him online - through our blogs, friend's blogs and the early, heady days twitter (where we blogged about having cups of tea, and no-one used tiny.url).

anyway, i had been in email contact with john while he was in new york and not long after he returned and in it he mentioned that his mum was quite ill - she'd fallen whilst he was away and was back in hospital. it was more serious than her previous long-term illness had been.

i didn't hear anything for a while, figured that everything was going OK, although he was strangely absent from some of the usual online blagging and there were some cryptic 'take care' kind of comments flying around on other blogs, but nothing all that clear.

then, last week, in a blog post about bureaucracies and customer service, he slipped in an innocuous line "i had to register a death the other day"...

now, being a maths whiz, i put 2 and 2 together and emailed him. we spoke and i got the full story about his mum's death. i was shocked and saddened. and, unsurprisingly, i felt quite powerless and that i should have known what happened somehow.

in our discussion about it, we spoke about death and how announcing death within the digital social realm doesn't have any etiquette yet. it's easy to celebrate people's weddings, announce the birth/conception of your first child, birthdays, parties - all other kinds of social rituals and customs - except death. i'm yet to see a facebook tag of people at the funeral. including the dead guy. [blogging about the end of your own terminal illness seems to be ok, but not so that of others']

announcing the death of your loved ones on your blog, or as a facebook update/tweet is still a bit, well, rank. but how do you notify people who are now friends with you primarily through these means. we've all got permission now to be friends with people just in binary form, but how are the more complex or intimate elements of friendship broached?

i thought about emailing the people who i knew, mutual friends, to let them know that doddsy's mum had died (because he sure as hell didn't want to) - but then i kind of chickened out. i guess this post will let a couple of people know, so that they can be there as a support, but what of the rest of his friends?

and of course, with that line of questioning came the inevitable, self-centered question of 'what if i die?'. who will notify all you guys? who is going to set up the 'lauren is permanently out of the office' auto-responder on my emails? i have left my mother a list of passwords to some of my accounts, so that, should she be the one who has to do it, she has access to some of that information. but will she even want to do that? in the future, will there be a section on our last will and testament, outlining the online social activity which will need to cease and the accompanying passwords?

just say we've all accepted the future of social interaction will include twitter, facebook, blogs, flickr and probably a bunch of other cool/necessary sites, how do we continue to accept the fact that we are humans participating in a social forum, which includes the incredibly anti-social business of dying?

UPDATE: since i wrote this, i've seen The Satorialist post that his dad has died recently, and Dan The Man let us know that his granddad died. Times, they are a-changing.

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At 20 April, 2009 14:46, Anonymous Rory said...

Frightening and slightly amusing at the same time. How did that conversation go down with your mum? Discussions of the digital rarely carry so much weight.

And an amazing piece, perfect title to tread that line between tragedy and comedy.

At 20 April, 2009 18:13, Anonymous niko said...

funny u should be thinking about this. a while back I talked to Rob about the same thing.

though it was more me doing my usual get rich quick schtick and him being polite :)

in further researching this very subject, I came across this...perhaps it is something of interest to u.


At 21 April, 2009 00:35, Blogger Robert said...

As a man who openly admits it takes me 7 years before I can call someone a friend, I admit I was devastated for Doddsy when I learnt about him Mum - acknowledging this is a guy I've only met once and at all other times, conversed with via blogs, email or - if I'm feeling ill [ :) ] twitter.

I guess I have to accept 'technology founded friendship' does have real value ... infact maybe it allows people to talk about uncomfortable subjects more easily because of the lack of 'face-to-face' intimidation ... so whilst I admit I'd rather of been infront of Dodds to pass on my best wishes, I know that technology at least let him know he had friends around the World that could show how much they cared rather than a few passing grunts at the pub.

Great post lovely Lauren ...

At 21 April, 2009 05:55, Blogger dell said...

Ugh... The idea of a facebook profile living on after you, and a swathe of pictures and comments and yes, it kinda feels weird.

I was notified a close friend from school had died by a status update. I guess I wouldn't know otherwise, but still it feels wrong.

I haven't even begun to wonder about what dregs I'll leave behind, it's bad enough reading four year old blog posts! I can't even remember the passwords now, how would anyone else manage to manage my online identity? Shudder to think...

At 21 April, 2009 06:55, Anonymous Marcus said...

Thank you for this post Lauren.

At 21 April, 2009 07:32, Anonymous lauren said...

rory - thanks. and at the time, the conversation was less about the deeper aspects of digital life, and more along the lines of bank account details and who to give my vinyl collection to. but, after this, i think i will have a more in depth conversation with her about it :) and then i'll let you know how it goes.. heh.

niko -

rob - i think you've already accepted the validity of online friendships, given the support you've given me over the years. others who i've known for years have not done some of the things you've done. and i know that doddsy would not have found an email weird at all.

dell - yeah, she sees red, long after i've gone is a bit weird. and it's sad to hear about the death of others' via a facebook status update. although i've both been 'married' and 'died' on facebook and they've yielded completely different responses. (ie, no-one gave a shit when i posted my 'dates'.)

marcus - you're welcome, Opi.

At 21 April, 2009 07:33, Blogger lauren said...

oops, i pressed publish before i finished.. heh.

niko - that is brilliant! i'm gonna do one :)

At 23 April, 2009 14:53, Anonymous Matt said...

I imagine when the telephone was a relatively new invention it was thought as wrong to inform someone of a death by telephone.

Now I imagine that it might be the most common method to communicate such news...

At 24 April, 2009 02:24, Blogger lucazoid said...

one of my favourite blogs of all time is by my friend predator:


it chronicles the cancer taking over his body, his mind trying to come to terms with something as abstract as itself not existing any more.

then at the end he dies. it's incredibly sad, and i am really glad he wrote it.

At 24 April, 2009 08:53, Anonymous lauren said...

hey lucas - i tried to find the link to a blog i stumbled upon by a guy who similarly blogged his cancer process, to no avail. and, as i mentioned, that kind of death 2.0 seems to be quite acceptable - broadcast by the 'owner' of the death. others' experience of death seems to still be a little, well, it's mixed isn't it.

interesting, niko posted something about perceptions of death being private and joy a public experience (although primarily in terms of western society methinks).

and matt - your point is exquisite. perfectly timed, even.

i wonder whether those from societies for whom death is still a part of public life would find these subjects still taboo: hindus, some islamic states (ie, honour killings in saudi), even christianity was founded on the concept of public death...

still much food for thought methinks.


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