R.I.P. on Facebook

Article excerpt

Byline: Lisa Miller

The uses and abuses of virtual grief.

Minutes after news broke that the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen was dead, a suicide at age 40, the prayers and condolences started pouring in. More than 80,000 people became "fans" of McQueen on Facebook in the first week. In the first day, messages (to the man or his memory--it's hard to know which) were being posted every second. Brief and wrenching, the messages are tiny mosaic tiles of grief: "RIP." "Genius." "It's been 5 days, I actually miss you as tho I knew you--sleep well."

This is how we collectively mourn: Globally. Together. Online.

The McQueen phenomenon recalls the piles of plastic-wrapped flowers laid at the stoop of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s apartment after his death, but Facebook hosts the shrines of less celebrated souls as well. One teenager started a tribute page for her murdered best friend: members are invited to write the dead girl's favorite song lyric--"Keep -Breathing"--on their wrist, take a picture, and post it. In October, Facebook changed its policy regarding the pages of members who have passed away. Responding in part to urging by people at Virginia Tech who wanted after the 2007 shooting there to continue to commune with their lost friends on Facebook, the company now allows a person's page to remain active in perpetuity. (Family members may request that a loved one's page be taken down.) "When someone leaves us, they don't leave our memories or our social network," the new policy says.

One might imagine such virtual mourning is shallow, but it's not. Here is a real gathering place, where friends can grieve together--and where the deceased continues, in some sense, to exist. "You're creating something like a tombstone, but people can visit that tombstone anytime, anyplace, as long as they have Internet access," says Brian McLaren, a leader in the emerging church movement and author of A New Kind of Christianity. "That seems to me to be a great gain."

We live in a disjointed time. Many of us reside far from our families and have grown indifferent to the habits of organized religion. More of us--16 percent--declare ourselves "unaffiliated" with any religious denomination. Half of Americans will choose cremation over burial, and if we are buried, it will often be in a huge cemetery, among strangers, far from any place we would call home. …