Death and Mourning in Technologically Mediated Culture

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This paper examines the expansion of death and grief from private experience and spaces, into more public spheres via a range of media events and communication technologies. This shift is increasingly acknowledged and documented in death studies and media research. The modern experience of 'sequestered death' has passed. Death images and events are now thoroughly mediated by the visual and communication technologies used and accessed by a vast number of citizens across the globe. At the same time, the proliferation and accessibility of death imagery and narratives does not necessarily mean that the Western world has moved forward and beyond 'death denial'. Indeed, one of the key arguments of this paper is that mediated death - death as televisual, cinematic, and journalistic image and narrative-does not necessarily equate to a familiarity, and especially an existential acceptance of death, as it is faced and experienced in everyday life and relationships. Indeed, what we may be facing, and witnessing, is a widening gap and experiential differential between media/technological death culture and 'real life' contexts and temporalities of death and bereavement.

KEY WORDS

Sociology, mourning, grief, public, real, fictional, celebrity, death

Received 2 April 2007 Accepted 2 September 2007

Introduction

No matter what the place or time of day, media sounds, images, and messages are continuously available to be heard or seen. They saturate virtually every aspect of experience and work their way into the conscious or unconscious minds of most people who are exposed to them, there making modern Western society surely the most media-mediated society that has every existed (David Gross).

Personal bereavement and/or seeing a dead body can remain outside 'real life' experience for most people in early to midadulthood, living in relatively affluent nationstates. At the same time, it is very likely that the majority of these people have seen hundreds, possibly thousands of simulated death via media technologies. Clarke argues that 'in the absence of personal experience with death people rely on media, among other things, for information, attitudes, beliefs and feelings about death and its meanings' (2005-2006:154). Sometimes, it is celebrities or major national or international public figures whose deaths are the first to make their mark on the biography and psyche of individuals. To briefly illustrate this point, after the death of Steve Irwin, a great deal of public discourse in Australia surfaced about the emotional impact of his death on children. And in keeping with Frank Furedi's thesis/critique of therapy culture, a swathe of advice from experts circulated in the media directed at teachers and parents.

This paper examines the expansion of death and grief from private experience and spaces, into more public spheres via a range of media events and communication technologies. This shift is increasingly acknowledged and documented in death studies and media research (Pantii 2005; Roberts and Vidal 1999-2000; Nager and de Vries 2004; Jones 2004; de Vries and Rutherford 2004; Thompson 1995; Walter ei al 1995). At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that the relationship between private and public is complicated by media technologies which traverse binaries and border lines.

The modern experience of 'sequestered death' has passed. Death images and events are now thoroughly mediated by visual and communication technologies used and accessed by a vast number of citizens across the globe. For example, mobile phone cameras make it easy for individuals to take snapshots of catastrophic events, and the world-wide-web has ushered in an era of self-appointed journalists or amateur film-makers. Through the internet, people are increasingly making their lives, experiences, and bodies open to public viewing, comment and consumption. There is a vast archive of virtual cemeteries, memorials, grief chat rooms, grief blogs, and condolence messages on the world-wide-web. …

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