Death and Mourning in Technologically Mediated Culture

By Gibson, Margaret | Health Sociology Review, December 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Death and Mourning in Technologically Mediated Culture


Gibson, Margaret, Health Sociology Review


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. Beyond more traditional and/or government based forms of acknowledging a life and a death, for example, birth and death certificates and announcements of births and deaths in newspapers, new forms of technology have created a form of do-ityourself (DIY) rites of mourning and memorialisation.

This paper can only offer a snapshot of the complexity of death culture in the media, and as such its main focus is that of the celebrity deaths, aspects of popular culture, in particular representations/simulation of death, and internet based publications of death imagery and mourning practices.

The 'real' and its doubles

Death as story and image is a normal, ubiquitous feature of news-broadcasts, film images, television programs and computer games (Walter et al 1995; Azoulay 2001; Berridge 2001; Field and Walter 2003; Jones 2004; Knox 2006). Citing Jeffrey Sconce, Steve Jones writes: 'the media and the dead have been linked in our collective consciousness for decades' (2004:83). In technologically dependent societies, news about death is almost without exception relayed via communication/ information technologies (Jones 2004:83). And communication technologies - telephone, text mobile messaging, email, internet, television, and radio - have also created new ways in which the dead are memorialised through communication technologies. …

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