Digital media has transformed how we listen to music, watch video and connect with friends and family. Increasingly, it’s changing how we handle the death of others, share loss and remember the departed.
RIP is becoming #RIP.
As technology enables us to remember a loved one’s life as captured in image and sound, or share mourning across a global network, it also raises some new questions.
As more and more of our memories find their way online — think Facebook’s timeline — at what point does our digital footprint define us at death? What are Facebook ghosts?
Is it poor taste to tweet at a funeral or take a selfie at an open-casket visitation? Is watching a funeral service online a weak substitute for being there in person? In a social media world where it’s always the present tense, how do we talk about death?
Digital media has made some funeral and memorial practices commonplace. Obituaries printed in newspapers and guest books signed by those attending funeral services and visitations have online counterparts, enabling people far away to read death notices and add sympathetic comments.
Photos of the deceased, usually displayed near the casket at a visitation or funeral, now appear in video slideshows projected on nearby monitors or online.
“It has changed,” said Tommy Riggs, director of operations for Wilkirson-Hatch-Bailey Funeral Home. His funeral home, like many in Waco, regularly creates a video tribute for someone who’s died from photos supplied by families.
Those tributes are then screened during visitations at the home or as part of a funeral service. The slideshow is sometimes burned to a DVD that’s given to the family.
Where once the only music at a funeral was that played live by an organist or pianist, now families often come in with a playlist of the dead person’s favorite songs, which are then downloaded and played before or during a funeral.
In some cases, a family asks that a service be videotaped, then transferred to a DVD or uploaded to a website so those not able to attend can watch it.
“There are so many options . . . to honor someone’s life,” he said.
Enough, in fact, that some funeral directors are finding digital skills an important part of their jobs. And for all the advantages that digital media provide, there are downsides, too.
The technology that allows people to post messages of concern and sympathy on online guest books also lets those with less-than-flattering memories of the deceased post their angry or derogatory views.
Monitoring online posts for such material is a precautionary routine for staffers at Wilkirson-Hatch-Bailey, Riggs said.
Janice Matthews, an owner of Dorsey-Keatts Funeral Home, said about half of the families that Dorsey-Keatts serves are interested in a funeral video.
“More and more people are wanting it,” she said.
Such DVDs are part of the digitally assisted services and products her business offers, including song playlists, photo slideshows and remembrance tapestries or rugs with the image of the person who has died.
Live streaming video of funeral services likely will come next, although demand for that isn’t there yet, she said.
Not only has digital media expanded the ways families remember those who have died, but it’s simplified funeral planning and collaboration, said Jim Moshinskie, president of OakCrest Funeral Home.
“I’ve been in the funeral business for 47 years, and over the last 10 to 15 years, it has really changed,” he said.
In the days after a loved one’s death, survivors can share funeral planning on a secure website, Facebook page, blog or chat site, or use a video communication application like Skype to discuss matters live on the Internet.
Moshinskie, a Baylor University professor of information systems, sees much good in in digital media and technology.
Families can more easily share images kept on their cellphones, Facebook and Instagram pages or websites.
In many cases, Moshinskie can improve those images on request through photo editing, substituting a shirt and tie for a T-shirt, removing facial blemishes or even cropping out an estranged family member — image tweaking that was possible with physical photographs, but more time-consuming and expensive.
In those cases, the final image may reflect more how family or friends remember their loved one more than how she or he actually looked, he said.
More and more families have smartphone videos shot at a birthday party or family get-together to integrate into a visual tribute and that adds a new dimension of memory: the sound of the deceased’s voice.
By expanding the number of those able to share memories of a person who’s died, digital media allows a greater sharing of sorrow and loss, Moshinskie said.
“It’s so wonderful to see a family standing in front of a video screen, (sharing) memories of a cruise or a birthday party or a pony ride,” he said. “We know that grief shared is grief diminished.”
What’s next? The OakCrest director sees video eulogies as a logical progression, although video tombstones — headstones with an embedded video player showing footage from the interred person’s life — may take some time before they catch on.
Digital media has done more than create new products or services for funeral homes.
The explosion of social media and the way we communicate with dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest and the like is shaping our language of mourning even as our experience of death is going online.
That’s a brave new world explored by Baylor University assistant professor of religion Candi Cann, who touches on the dynamics of online grief and memorials in her 2014 book “Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-first Century.”
The intersection of social media users — about 1 billion Facebook users worldwide, for instance — and the details of daily life that they share make it inevitable that death and loss become part of that conversation, she noted.
Translating deep emotion and sometimes conflicting feelings into words is never easy, but online expressions of concern and sympathy, confined by messaging protocols and etiquette, have to act as a shorthand.
News of a death on a Facebook feed triggers scores of “like” replies, even though those replying aren’t enjoying or approving of the sad news, she said.
Similarly, while death turns a life into a past event, the language of social media is overwhelmingly in the present tense, Cann observed.
Added to that are the messages survivors address directly to the departed, as if a tweet or Facebook post could be read from beyond the grave.
“It’s the language we would hear at the tombstone, but with the audience of living people,” she said.
Then there’s the communal sorrow expressed at the death of a celebrity such as actors Robin Williams or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those deaths spur millions of expressions of sorrow or sympathy, the vast majority of which are from people with no personal contact with the celebrity or his or her survivors.
They’re made not so much as personal encouragement as a statement of community for others — millions of others — feeling a shared sadness, Cann said.
In some cases, the dynamics and algorithms of online media keep the dead alive, as names of dead persons sometimes are attached to random messages that pop up to invite a social media user to try out a service or business — what’s been termed, informally, as an “Internet ghost.”
“We didn’t have that before, the dead popping back at any point,” Cann said. “The dead are present, but not present.”
Essay titles in the upcoming book “Digital Death: Mortality and Beyond in the Online Age,” edited by Christopher Moreman and A. David Lewis suggest how digital media is changing perceptions on death: “Fictional Death and a Real Bereavement Community Online,” “Death and Progress in Video Games” and Cann’s “Tweeting Death, Posting Photos and Pinning Memorials: Remembering the Dead in Bits and Pieces.”
Given the increasing amount of personal video, audio and text loaded — and stored — on social media sites today, there’s plenty of digital memories at hand to remind the living of the dead.
While video tombstones may seem a little improbable, Cann points out that a variation on the subject is becoming more frequent in countries like Japan and China. Rather than an embedded video player, a QR code engraved in a memorial marker steers smartphone-equipped family and friends to an online video memorial of the dead person.
For some religious traditions, ritual and belief have kept the influence of digital media at bay. Rabbi Gordon Fuller of Congregation Agudath Jacob points out that Orthodox Jewish law and tradition set specific practices and procedures for a member’s burial and family’s mourning.
The manner in which a body is prepared and buried and a prescribed set of mourning periods, from a seven-day shiva at the family’s home tapering to a headstone dedication a year later — all are physical acts done within the community, without the introduction of digital media.
“Judaism is not just a religion. It’s a way of life and community is very important,” he said. “When I was in college in the ’70s, I was taught there’s a continuum between high tech and high touch. When it comes to life-cycle events in Judaism, clearly the focus is on high touch.”
A personal, physical presence is essential to share another’s grief and sadness after a death, Fuller said, noting a virtual community is limited to words and pictures.
Despite the growth of digital media in funerals and memorials, funeral director Matthews said they’ll never replace a funeral service.
No online application or social media can replace one last touch of a loved one in the casket or the emotional experience of closing the casket lid, Matthews said.
“No, no. There’s always a place for that,” she said.