Digital Death, or Lack Thereof


Posted on February 16th, by Joy Brown in Joy Brown. No Comments

In a 2013 New York Times feature on Billy Crystal and the actor’s memoir, “Still Foolin’ Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?,” reporter Dave Itzkoff details an awkward, but poignant moment during a public book reading. While relaying a passage from the chapter, “Buying the Plot,” which addresses mortality, Crystal made eye contact with his wife in the audience, got choked up and dropped the iPad he was reading from.

One need not have been present at Crystal’s book reading to at least be marginally impacted. Itzkoff’s sentimental prose captured the scene well, and served as a reminder of death’s inevitability.

Death, as it turns out, is not only one of the most compelling topics in any respect, but also happens to occupy an important space in rhetorical studies. Standing alongside ancient Greece’s original discourse methods involving legal matters, politics and public oratory were encomiums, or soliloquys that praised individuals. Encomiums have since evolved into today’s eulogies, which, of course, seek to capture and convey part of a deceased person’s essence and primary attributes.

Now, however, the digital realm is beginning to upend how we deal with death. In fall 2015, for a course on classical rhetorical theory, I wrote a 21-page paper that addressed online public grieving and memorializing. My inspiration came from a Facebook page called Kennedys HUGS, which is managed by the father of a teen who died from an exceedingly rare and aggressive brain affliction called Batten disease. On the page, which remains active today, Jason Hanson not only keeps his daughter’s memory alive, but believes that she is still present.

“…As I sit here and ponder and feel and listen and soak in all that is Kennedy, I know that what was missing today is now with me again. For she is here she is aware and she is concerned about me,” Hanson posted in September 2015. Other posts reflect his belief that Kennedy leaves him physical objects, and some even read as if Kennedy herself is posting.

Kennedys HUGS has more than 80,000 followers, and serves as an ongoing digital memorial for friends, family and strangers alike, who leave comments, post photos and engage in discourse.

In my paper, I argued that for many, online spaces are enabling digital immortality and avoidance of the physical aspects of death. Long gone are the Victorian days when mourning entailed wakes that lasted for days, and picnics at gravesites (those Victorians really knew how to throw a good death party). Today, the online world makes it easy to avoid graveyards altogether and to instead anthropomorphize the deceased on a screen.

In terms of the grief process, there is, of course, nothing wrong with using various methods to process emotions and to keep the memory of a loved one alive, be it with blogs or museum websites. We all grieve differently. Rhetorically, however, such digital spaces are also providing us with an exceedingly rich field for communicative research and analysis (along with studies related to fields such as anthropology, sociology and psychology). And obviously there’s far more in store. In the future, how will virtual reality play a role in the process of dying, funerals and mourning? What will these disruptions of traditions mentally and culturally mean?

As I wrapped up this column, I heard news of the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida. Death continues to be a part of our daily lives in myriad and meaningful ways, and rhetoric will continue to play the most vital role in documenting, digesting and deconstructing it.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



From the Blog

Wondering what it's really like to be at The University of Findlay? Follow our bloggers and read—and sometimes listen and watch—their experiences. Real Oilers. Real stories. Real life.

Homestays and new experiences

So far on our journey, we have encountered so many kind people and even made some great new friends. The professors at the University...

Why Fukui?

You may find yourself wondering why we traveled to Japan. To put it simply, Kat and I wholeheartedly believe traveling and immersing yourself in...

Seeing the Sights and Settling In

The first three days of our trip were spent traveling Osaka, a great place for sightseeing here in Japan. We were able to see...

Sleepless in Osaka

A few days ago, we were scheduled to leave for Japan with Dr. Alison Baer and her husband Paul.  If you saw two girls...

Ready to Go!

Hello, Kat Slate and Julia Smith here! We are education majors setting out to teach children, not only here, but all over the world.

We...

Dear Findlay: A Letter to Everyone I’ve Known the Past 4 Years

Dear Findlay (and everyone affiliated),

August 2014, was the beginning of my senior year of high school. For most of my classmates, that meant preparing...

Use Your Words

For my last blog post of the academic year (I’ll be back this fall), I thought I’d provide some educational value to your valuable...

The Senioritis Struggle (or lack thereof): Part 2

Senioritis: sen·ior·i·tis: noun humorous: A supposed affliction of students in their final year of high school or college, characterized by a decline in motivation...

Freshman Year Lessons: An End of the Year Reflection

Looking back on my freshman year at Findlay, I have learned so much. It would be almost impossible to write about how many lessons...

To a New Beginning!

So, it’s almost the end of this semester! Almost the end of me being a freshman! They say time flies. It does.

There are so...

Surviving the End of the Semester: Tips & Tricks

The last few weeks of the semester are always the hardest. Suddenly, everything that you put off because “It isn’t due until the end...

Mazza Museum – Get the Picture!

It’s hard to believe, but not everyone who goes to UF has been to one of my favorite spots on campus: the Mazza Museum. It...

Passionate Students + Humble Leadership + Above & Beyond Mentality = @TheOiler10

On August 19, 2016, Professor Scott Grant, Ed.D., gathered 10 students (including myself) together in Old Main, Room 203. Barely any of us knew...

My Kind of Spring Break

If you are a follower of UFindlay Instagram or my Instagram profile, you may have seen that I had the great opportunity to be...

Let’s Celebrate More Birthdays

More than likely, someone in your life or someone you know has been affected by cancer.

In 2008, when I was just 10 years old,...