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Death in cyberspace

Updated Tuesday, 22nd September 2009

Dr Sarah Earle looks at the increasing use of the internet to create online memorials to people who have died

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Sarah Earle Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Sarah Earle

In recent years the internet has revolutionised the way people find and share information, study, keep up with news and weather, and buy and sell goods and services. But the net is so much more than these things.

Writing in 1997 about the use of the net, scholars Lee Sproull and Samer Faraj suggested that it is also a “social technology” that allows people to communicate with one another and to create and maintain relationships over time. So, the net enables people to stay in touch with friends, make new friends and have fun.

However, the internet is also playing an increasingly important role when someone dies and, more generally, in preparation for death. For example, memorial websites are growing in number and are widely seen as an alternative way to memorialise people who have died.

Websites vary in their level of sophistication, and payment for a “memorial” page ranges from nothing, to a one-off fee, to an ongoing fee for maintaining the website (much like the system of fees levied in cemeteries). There are several common themes in memorial websites. For example, users can sign a guestbook and there are often photographs of the deceased person. Visitors to the site can "light" candles to signify that someone has visited the site.

Increasingly, video is being used to commemorate and memorialise the life of the person who has died. Stories, poems and anecdotes can also be found. The internet offers those who have been bereaved the chance for endless creativity in a way that is not constrained by the limits of physical space.

Significantly, these memorial sites not only provide a much more interactive experience than viewing a static memorial in a cemetery, they can also be accessed from anywhere in the world. American engineer Hermann Gruenwald and computer scientist Le Gruenwald have noted that websites also offer bereaved people opportunities to "visit" a memorial when there is no body to dispose of, as in the case of a missing person or a mass death event where bodies cannot be recovered.

This was the case following the Asian Tsunami in 2004 when photographs of dead bodies were posted on the internet for the purposes of identification. Anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection can memorialise a loved one online. Online memorialisation is accessible and timely as well as cost-efficient.

Kylie Veale, who writes about online memoralisation, suggests that, in a society where families and friends can live very far apart, cyberspace offers an effective alternative to physical memorialisation. The practice of funeral web-casting, using a webcam, for example, enables people to participate in a funeral or memorial from a distance, wherever they might live. Pamela Roberts (2005), who is interested in the role of cyberspace, notes that these online services might be particularly useful for older people and/or for people with mobility problems who might find it difficult, or impossible, to travel long distances to a funeral or memorial service.

However, whilst the net is becoming increasingly important, and has many advantages, it can also create controversy and invoke discomfort.

Sociologist Anna Davidsson Bremborg has a special interest in thanatosociology (the study of death in society). She argues that photographs of dead bodies (which often appear as part of an online memorial) can be perceived as distasteful and provocative. For example, drawing on her study of two Swedish online parent communities, she notes that pictures of stillborn babies and dead children were seen as "sensitive" material that could cause offence, particularly to pregnant women. Similarly, when the photographs of dead bodies were published on an internet forum for identification purposes following the Asian Tsunami in 2004, many visitors were shocked and horrified with the images they saw. One visitor described the dead bodies as like, "grilled, cracked hot dogs". Another said:

"When I came to this [forum], I was met with something I could never imagine. I thought I would see peacefully dead persons, lying there, easy to recognize for relatives and friends. But it wasn’t like that at all. Most of them looked like swollen balls, black and mangled. I don’t understand how they can look so terrible in just a few days."

As Davidsson Bremborg notes, whilst the image of death is often that of someone lying peacefully in bed, the photographs of those who died in the Tsunami depicted something very different.

For some people, creating and viewing an online memorial could never favourably compare to the physical experiences of keeping someone’s ashes or visiting a gravestone and laying fresh flowers. However, whatever your view, the net is playing an increasingly important role in everyone’s life and is, thus, likely to have a significant future role in the memorialisation of deceased people and in supporting those who experience grief and bereavement following the death of a loved one.

For further reading

"Dead bodies on the internet", by Anna Davidson Brembourg in Making Sense of Death, Dying and Bereavement: An Anthology , edited by Sarah Earle, Caroline Bartholomew and Carol Komaromy and published by Sage/Open University.
"Cyber cemeteries and virtual memorials: virtual living monuments as on-line outlets for real life mourning and a celebration of life" by Hermann Gruenwald and Le Gruenwald in Making Sense of Death: spiritual, pastoral and personal aspects of death, dying and bereavement , edited by G R Cox, R A Bendiksen, and R G Stevenson, published by Baywoond Publishing.
Generations, by Summer
"Atheism, Sex and Databases: The net as a social technology" by Lee Sproull and Faraj Samer in Culture of the Internet edited by Sara Kiesler, published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
"Online memorialisation: The web as a collective memorial landscape for remembering the dead" by Kylie Veale in Issue 3 of Fibreculture,

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