Shadows of the Dead: Social Media and our Changing Relationship with the Departed

Shadows of the Dead: Social Media and our Changing Relationship with the Departed

Debra Bassett

The beginning of our lives are celebrated, chronicled and publicised, whilst the end of our lives are often whispered about and hidden away from public gaze. However, there is growing evidence that the Internet is being used to change the way people discuss issues around death and dying. The dead are becoming digitally immortal: The Internet is creating a space where digital memories are being created and inherited, bringing death and dying out of the shadows and into the open.

Recently, I was speaking to someone whose son had tragically died in his early twenties, they told me how upsetting it was to receive just 3 condolence cards. When they mentioned this to a friend of their son’s, he told them that it was because someone – not a family member – had set up a Facebook memorial page for their son. They were told of the hundreds of messages on the page, with friends leaving wonderful stories about their son; adding that some of the messages were addressed to them, the parents. But they had no access to Facebook, and importantly their son had never had a Facebook page. “Our mantle is empty” she explained. Digital messages had replaced the physical condolence cards, which she told me left them feeling isolated and bereft.

My research looks at how the grieving process can be affected by the digital immortality enabled by social networking sites. During the early stages of this research it became clear that when looking at digital immortality there is a distinct difference between what I call ‘accidental’ platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and WhatsApp – the social networks for the living; and what I call ‘intentional’ platforms such as SafeBeyond, Eternime and DeadSocial.  There are a growing number of ‘intentional’ digital memory platforms, offering services ranging from the delivery of posthumous messages, to creating avatars that allow you to become “virtually immortal” which they say will enable you to give advice to your descendants after you are dead.

I call those who inherit digital memories left by the dead ‘Digital Inheritors’ and it is my interviews with these digital inheritors that are helping me to understand how digital memories created on social networking platforms are affecting how people are grieving in our digital society.  Facebook is a platform “where my sister remains witty, happy & alive” a participant told me.  Because she has the password has access and control of the page.  She describes the comfort she gets from still having some form of communication from the page over a year after her sister’s death. She told me how being notified of her sister’s birthday gives her a sense that her sister is still alive.  She has the ability to changes the photograph at the top of the page, which she does occasionally, and enjoys it when linked friends ‘like’ or comment on the changes she makes.

An interesting provisional finding of the research is how the messaging app WhatsApp is being mentioned by a large number of my Digital Inheritors: it is the everydayness of the messages and the fact that they contain “nothing deep and meaningful” that people find the most comforting. Messages like “Do you need anything from the shop?”, “I’ll pop round tomorrow”, “speak later”, “where are you? I’m ringing the door bell” are mentioned. For many, both WhatsApp and the conversational view of text messages are discussed as a comfort and a tool used to help them adjust.   One digital inheritor tells me that it is the pattern of the text conversations with her father which she finds most poignant:  The one word replies to her texts when he starts to get used to the new technology to the full conversations and then the return to the one word replies during his final weeks.  She explains that to her, the pattern the messages make on her mobile phone graphically illustrates the “gradual erosion” of her father. Other participants told me how WhatsApp is useful to keep a small number or specific close friends and family up to date with prognosis updates at the end stages of people’s lives rather than posting on Facebook which is less “private”.  Interestingly, all my participants who have used WhatsApp for communicating at this time have saved the messages, with some purchasing third party software to archive the messages. With over 1 billion users worldwide it seems that WhatsApp slogan “stay in touch with friends and families anytime and anywhere” is more apt than they would have ever imagined.

LinkedIn is a platform used by many as a “professional” networking tool.  But participants are mentioning LinkedIn as another site where digital memories are being stored and retrieved. A participant whose deceased aunt is still ‘active’ on LinkedIn, describes the pop up messages she still gets from the site and how it is “incredibly poignant when this “little shadow-thing pops up”.  She goes on to explain that there is no photograph of her aunt on the site, so she only sees an outline shadow – “it is a shadow of the dead” she tells me.

It is estimated that over 200 million emails are sent each day, so it is hardly surprising that reading past emails from those who have died would be discussed by many of my participants.  A Canadian participant told me she has archived all the Gmail chats between her and her mother (who died last year). In one email, when she was away from home her Mother wrote, “I’m there in spirit baby girl”.  She told me she reads this particular message more than any other message because it brings her comfort by making her feel close to her mother at times of change or turmoil.

Second death describes social death rather that biological death, here I suggest the term “second loss” to describe how the loss or deletion of digital memories would effect the bereaved.  With each of my participants I discuss how they would feel if the digital memories they had inherited were permanently deleted: “I would be devastated”  “It would start my grief all over again”.  Even those participants who do not visit the Facebook pages or other accidental platforms have commented that they would not want it switched off permanently and they like the fact they can switch it back on if they wanted to, one woman told me she was glad her mother’s Facebook page was offline but still exists.

Although many of my participants describe the comfort they get from reading the digital memories left by the dead, generally I get a different response when I ask about listening to voice messages from the departed. Many have voice recordings they cannot access due to format changes, but they still cherish them and feel a sense of comfort knowing the voice is still there. However, easy accessibility on hand held devises is more complex with many participants telling me how they need to already be having a “bad day” to listen to voice recordings, and that this is done only occasionally and after much consideration.

The motivations of thanabloggers and the impact of thanablogs on the bereaved form a crucial part of social research. A participant, whose husband blogged throughout his terminal illness, discussed how visiting his blog 16 months after his death is still very painful.  She describes how “it closes the time gap between him being alive and being dead”.  In his blog he discusses his own mortality which is perhaps more difficult to read than the everydayness of the accidental digital memories that others find so comforting. She goes on to tell me that it is difficult not to get “caught out” that he is still alive when she gets a digital “ping” from her husband’s live Facebook page which still exists, but that the decision to switch it off is a decision she is not able to face at the moment.

Understanding the importance of both ‘accidental’ digital memories and ‘intentional’ digital memories on the bereaved is a crucial area of social research. For some, digital immortality is creating “empty mantles” and isolation, whilst for many it provides solace in dark times.  Social network sites ensure the dead remain part of our everyday lives because they are accessible on our everyday devises. The Internet is offering our digital society a chance to avoid a second death, thereby changing not only how we socialise with the living, but also how we socialise with the dead.

When those involved in my research give their time and emotional energy to discuss their darkest moments and deepest grief, the use of terms such as “participants” and “preliminary findings” seems disrespectful. In this article, I use these terms with sincere respect and thanks to all those who have given their time for this study.


Debra Bassett is a PhD Candidate at the University of Warwick.  Her research interest lies in whether digital immortality afforded by social media platforms – through the creation of digital messages – will affect how people grieve.