The Age of Digital Mourning

Posted: 12/12/2017

There is almost no facet of our lives that remains untouched by the phenomenal rise of digital communications, and this alters on an almost weekly basis, developing into new previously unknown forms. Less than five years ago,  all of the following would have been technically impossible or in the last example at least, considered uncharted social media territory : the opportunity to live stream (good, or bad) any activity we choose on social media, the ability to do our grocery shop on our phone and checkout through our mobiles too, and the fact that we even now live in an era where it is possible for the president of the United States to be able to dictate foreign policy in 126 characters or less.

On this note, as the digital landscape shatters and then remoulds our traditional ways of thinking and acting in our day-to-day lives, it should come as no surprise that this has also become applicable to our behaviour when it comes to our sensitivities about mourning and our perceptions relating to death online.

Mourning online

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Current trends in the UK reveal that updating the death of loved ones through social media is becoming increasingly normalised.

The passing of a loved one is undoubtedly a  life-altering experience. However, mourning has been long-established as having been one bound up by expectations of privacy and characterised by a grief shared by an intimate few, but in certain respects, we are now at the behest of social media. With over two-thirds of us using some sort of social media each and every day, with 37% of us (or at least those who admit to doing so) using it several times a day. 47% of us believe now that writing a post online is a normal way to break the news of someone’s death, and it often now outlines the modern framework of mourning.

As Facebook reaches a metaphorical milestone reaching over two billion users in 2017, it has also reached one for digital gravestones too: it is estimated that nearly one million users died in 2016.  By the end of the century, it has even been reported that it is thought that there will be more dead users than alive.  64% of those believe it is a ‘good’ way of letting online friends know. But, are we undergoing a process of depersonalisation by referring to the deceased as merely a member of a website that has now passed?

Digital mourning etiquette

Last January, research was conducted by ICM on behalf of Co-op funeral care, looking at the way in which social media is having an impact on the way in which we view death in the UK. It was revealed that we deem certain social media platforms as less acceptable than others. Less than 10% used Snapchat to publicise the passing of someone, with Facebook being far the most popular option. This may relate to the intergenerational nature of this social media channel as opposed to Snapchat, which tends to be dominated by younger people and is known for its jovial tone and the ephemeral quality of its communications.

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The digital revolution increasingly alters our mourning etiquette as social media becomes more dominant in our lives. Photo source phys.org.uk

Increasingly, more of us are indicating our wish for our social media to be updated upon our death. The study also revealed that 33% of adults had already let their family members know that this is what they would like to happen, or even written this in their will or their funeral plans. 

It seems like social networks are clocking on to this new demand for a digital footprint from beyond the grave.

  • Google launched a tool in 2013 that allowed users to choose how their data was used after their death.
  • Since 2015, Facebook lets people designate a ‘Legacy Contact’, meaning they can post one last profile picture or post on behalf of a loved one, as well as being able to manage parts of their account (but Facebook does not allow the legacy contact to download an archive of their private messages). The account may also be deleted, and a copy of the death certificate, plus evidence that you have the authority (through being a next of kin).
  • Meanwhile, Instagram allows users to memorialize or deactivate an account according to their preferences.
  • On Twitter, a form must be completed to report the death of a user and then the account may be deactivated. A death certificate is likely to be required. Unlike Facebook, no such ‘legacy contact’ exists regardless of their link to the deceased due to privacy reasons.
  • Linkedin can shut down an account if they have both the personal information of the deceased as well as a link to the obituary and the name of the company previously worked at.

Is social media helping us to grieve?

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The older generation prefers to express their condolences through traditional methods as opposed to through social media posts. Photo source: paperseedlings.com

Why is it becoming more common for people to express their social media preferences when they are deceased? Well, 57% of those who wished for their online profiles to be updated thought it was a nice way of their memory living online, but for their loved ones it also provided a sense of comfort and helped with bereavement process. According to a Digital Death Survey in 2014, 59% have viewed a social media accounts after a loved one had died, with these platforms becoming a place to reminisce and remember, too.

However, this sense of comfort appears to be divided by generations. Whilst 31% of the 20-39 age group would be comfortable paying their respects through social networks, those aged 60 or over still overwhelmingly  (69%) tend to choose sympathy cards as their preferred way of expressing condolences. Perhaps this can be related to the fact that younger generations, notably Millenials have grown up as the digital revolution has taken place and therefore are more at ease with using social media as a means to communicate. However, it could also be indicative of the increasingly flippant ways we tend to deal with issues around us in the digital age, with social media allowing us to place distance between ourselves and problems or concerns of ours in a way hitherto unseen.

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