Keeping in touch: how posthumous Facebook profiles are changing the way we grieve

LAUREN BIRD
The Aquinian (St. Thomas University)

Facebook pages like this one are changing the way we view.

FREDERICTON (CUP) — Almost 15 years after the death of Princess Diana, you can still buy plates and cups with her face on it on the streets of London.

People still mourn her. She was an icon. So it makes sense that she is still mourned. But what about the ordinary? The everyday people who die too soon without having left their mark on the world? Lately, they’ve been continually memorialized as well.

In the past, according to Andrew Perry, funeral director of McAdam Funeral Home in Fredericton, “that moment at the cemetery was where it ends.”

But social media has changed the way we say goodbye — or don’t. Facebook pages remain long after its owner has died, friends can still post, and often times they go a step further and make a memorial page. It’s changing the way we grieve, for better or worse.

Courtney Hill is doing her master’s in occupational therapy at Dalhousie University. At the end of her Grade 11 year, her close friend was killed in a car accident.

Back then, Facebook was still closed to university students. But the next year, her friend had a memorial page.

“I had a sociology class last year and the professor … she was like, ‘Now when someone dies, everyone just grieves through a Facebook profile and it’s not healthy,” Hill said. “I got super offended when she said it.”

According to Hill, it has helped. It’s been nearly six years since she lost her friend; she writes on her page regularly.

“I do it because I feel like it’s kind of a way to talk to them,” Hill said. “It’s a way to get your thoughts out that you’ve been thinking all the time. It’s a mode of communication.”

Michael George, a St. Thomas University professor who explores issues of death and dying, also doesn’t see it as problematic.

“Depending on the people, most rituals around death are more for the survivors than the dead,” he said. “A lot of our culture is based on trying to maintain some kind of continuity.”

A continuing Facebook page does that. The profile picture doesn’t change, comments aren’t deleted; it reeks with the digital echoes of a life gone, though not entirely. Traces of that person aren’t confined to a grave or personal belongings or even a memory, they live on through one-sided conversations and unread comments.

Of course, Facebook has a policy for pages of users who pass away: “It is our policy to memorialize all deceased users’ accounts on the site. When an account is memorialized, only confirmed friends can see the profile (timeline) or locate it in Search. The profile (timeline) will also no longer appear in the Suggestions section of the Home page. Friends and family can leave posts in remembrance,” the policy reads.

“In order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone,” it continues. “However, once an account has been memorialized, it is completely secure and cannot be accessed or altered by anyone.”

Perry, also the assistant managing director at McAdam, understands. “I just don’t think that the ways of the past are the ways of the future,” he said.

The funeral homes are changing, adhering to a new technological standard.

The McAdam home was a little too quiet and still. The winter sunlight streamed in through the window and touched down on couches that had been barely sat in, at least, not comfortably. Soon, they’ll stream funerals online for friends and family who can’t make it to the service. But Perry worries that will take away the need for people to come at all.

“If someone passes away and if there is a visitation … the traditionalist’s generation still feels this need to go to the funeral home,” he said.

But do Generation X and Y? If we can sit home in a pair of jeans and watch the funeral procession, then leave our sympathies on a Facebook wall, will we have that same need?

Do we really want to live where death never touches us, but never leaves us?


Photo: Tom Bateman/The Aquinian