Digital Death, or Lack Thereof
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.