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Death and Facebook

Death and Facebook

Like most, I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. On a particularly amorous day a few months back, I clicked my heels as I realized 20 years to the month we graduated that three quarters of my 8th grade class and I were friends. However, this was a short-lived joy owing to the jerkoff Farmville and Mafia Wars invites a handful of them kept sending me and the bevy of stalkerazi friend requests I was suffering during Facebook’s Y2K-style privacy meltdown.

Nostalgia and neurosis. The good and the bad of a ride on the Facebook train.

But then, suddenly, there was death. Death that did not coming dropping slow like the linnet’s wings (read your Yeats people) but, in the space of a week, death plastered all over my home page scroll down.

“I’m so sorry for your loss! I’m praying for you!”

“When’s the service? Please call! We’re here for you!”

“What a horrible tragedy! We’re all in shock!”

Fan pages (hey, Pink Vanilla has one of those!), bullshit “How Waco, Texas are you?” quizzes and corralling filthy farm animals aside (20 years I’m a vegetarian and thanks to Farmville I’ve never wanted to slaughter an animal so bad), Facebook is an ingenious invention of community and connection. Our online Y, if you will. So it makes perfect sense that we would connect to the community to break the news of loss, to keep vigil, to grieve.

Or does it?

The community is made up of individuals. Individuals who may be closer to some than others or, in the case of Facebook, individuals you might not be close to at all. Facebook friends are often randoms, people you’ve added out of altruistic courtesy, technological ineptitude or sheer voyeuristic boredom. The result is a community of friends who, hate to break it to ya, aren’t really your friends at all.

All this begs for new condolence etiquette. How does the individual respond to the community’s franticly punctuated and amateur obituaries? And, is posting your sorrow on someone’s profile page a kosher idea in the first place?

My triple death knell came courtesy of Facebook’s arbitrary filters. Frenzied posts between mutual friends found their way to my home page, spurring me to conduct ghoulish searches on friends and friends of friends’ pages for the 411. In the one case where a very close friend was affected, I was deeply saddened for her loss, but a strange anger toward the community also welled up in me. I resented learning of something so personal secondhand and in a public space. Instead of my friend calling or sending me a private message, an hysterical public was playing grim reaper. I immediately opted out of the community grieving, composing instead an intimate, private message.

The other deaths impacted two of my six degrees of separation friends. Being notified was awkward to say the least. Sure, it only takes thirty seconds to compose a short condolence. But because you don’t really know your friend, chances are they don’t know you either, and now certainly isn’t the time to come crawling out of the woodwork. So there you are, hovering on your friend’s profile page with a bizarre kind of guilt for having a friend you don’t even really know and can’t console at their darkest hour, and for thanking God that no one knows about your uncomfortable silence.

Except Him, that is.

What are your thoughts on breaking the news of someone’s death or posting public condolences on Facebook? Do you think it’s tacky, hysterical (as in emotionally irrational) awkward or acceptable 2.0 etiquette? Share!


Apparently I’m not the only one struggling with bizarro voyeuristic mortality issues when it comes to friend or foe Facebook. Check out this article “A Death on Facebook” by Kate Block in the September issue of The Atlantic. And if you’re not already an Atlantic reader, fire and brimstone are on the way.

Lead Photo: Collateral Damage


  • Nicole Craven said:

    I guess some people do not like confrontation. I was informed by a friend of mine (who used to date an Asian) that it is customary for Asian’s to avoid confrontation. To most it comes off very rude and cold. Although it’s very strange to message about death, it may be an easier way for the sending to communicate. So the whole text messaging, emailing and facebook messaging thing is great for those who want to avoid human interaction.

  • Sarah said:

    Facebook. The bane of my life – well, between 9pm and 11pm or whenever Im so bored I find myself looking through other peoples pictures that I don’t even know instead of reading something credible or newsworthy. And I excuse my existence on the bloody thing as many of my friends live overseas, no one emails anymore, all plans are done via facebook instead of calling and I get to hear anything important via status updates.

    Is this really uniting people or making them more distant? I’d rather have emails, I’d rather talk on the phone, I’d rather have a few ‘real’ friends that I invest my time in than a few hundred alleged facebook friends, most of which I don’t even know that well. Quality not quantity people.

    …And if I have another ‘you just received a hug…send on back’ request I’ll track the bitch down who sent it and strategically place their laptop where it definitely will not receive wifi signal.

  • Bridget Bailey said:

    This technology has totally changed the way we communicate in this world. It is shocking when you find out a friend has died on Facebook, or when you google their name. Sure we can search for long lost friends and people we think we knew now but we may find that they have come to a very sad and dismal death; alone without any such friends to inform those that cared. I don’t even talk on the phone anymore. I text, it is easier and certainly makes the conversation go by quickly. Email if I have more to say. I wonder about the ettiquette, someone should write a book on “the appropriate use of” since my kids will text at the dinner table, while we drive, in class, with other friends, at a bar, on the toilet. Anything goes, it seems. I wonder what type of people this new generation of social networks, cell phones, Ipads and coffee houses this world is creating.

  • Sarah May said:

    I am somewhere in between. I have about 2 hundred people I don’t know but are friends of friends through the cat and dog rescue people I know, so I accepted friendship based on the possibility to reach more people in case of a dog or cat emergency. It really works, too. Everyday I see dogs and cats that have been adopted due to this networking. As far as death notices, it is kind of tacky. I notified people about my dog, but I think it was because I did not want to talk, and I knew that some people were following me regarding his illness. I think if some family member died I would not post it. I don’t WANT replies from people I don’t know. I like to post on FB something like, ” White boots should be banned in Rome.” Post your blog, your rants, etc, but close family member deaths? Tacky. I think people are hungry for attention and clearly do not get enough in their real life.

  • Sarah May said:

    BTW we do post on the death of animals. This is because if the dog or cat has not been adopted and died we want that animal out of the circuit to make room for another dog or cat.

  • Jen said:

    Nicole, I totally agree that for some FB definitely makes communication that might be awkward or uncomfortable in person a whole lot easier. And yes, some people (myself included on occasion) do tend to hide behind it. Like Sarah mentioned, ironically all these public forums like FB, Twitter and the like, intended to connect us, can also be great places to withdraw, hide out or get lost in the riff raff of others. I think most Facebookers long for phone calls, private emails and even – gasp! – snail mail. “Quality not quantity” is right! Sarah M, kudos that you’re connected to the randoms for a cause! In my opinion, this is one of the best and certainly most productive things about FB, making your randoms not so random at all. And Bridget, it’s the disaffected, short attention span generation not only that we’re up against, but that we’ve been sucked into as well. Ritalin for everyone!

  • Sarah May said:

    I have two pen pals that I snail mail with all the time. Have had one of them since I was 20!!

  • Tina said:

    I think it’s completely tasteless. If I died, I wouldn’t want someone posting about it all over facebook. I just think it’s wrong.

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