Saturday, January 2, 2016

How Social Media Changes the Way We Mourn -- And the Way We Understand Death

Jenna Wortham writes in the New York Times Magazine:

"In an essay they contributed to the ‘‘Handbook of Death and Dying,’’ the sociologists William R. Wood and John B. Williamson observe that people in the developed world have managed to banish death from their everyday lives — no small feat. ‘‘In the United States and Western Europe, dying is now primarily a private and often technical affair, hidden behind the closed doors of the hospital, the mortuary and the funeral home,’’ they write. Traditional mourning rituals, across the world, establish boundaries around grieving, to help the bereaved process the passing of a life. In the Philippines, for example, many families hold vigils over several days that allow mourners to be with the bodies of the deceased. Jewish tradition has shiva, a period of up to seven days in which families stay at home, receiving visitors. Even in households with no such traditions, obituaries for loved ones tend to include instructions for sending condolences and flowers for those who want to pay their respects from afar. But those norms evaporate on social media. There, mourning feels increasingly public, more communal and more collective.

The near pervasiveness of social technology has delivered death back into our daily interactions. With the exception of our friends and closest kin, we typically encounter news of deaths through social media. The same feed that informs us about sports scores and plot twists on ‘‘Empire’’ also tells us, without any ceremony, that a life has come to an end.

This could be a blurring of a sacred line, the conflation of the profound with something profane. But this flattening has a benefit: We can no longer avert our eyes from tragedy. We have seen how people used social media to ensure that Americans did not ignore the deaths of people like Freddie Gray, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland, amplifying them into a rallying cry for justice. The mass shootings in Paris and San Bernardino felt, somehow, closer to our lives because they played out on our screens and in our browsers."

Ghosts in the Machine - The New York Times

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