Politics & Policy

Death on Facebook

A different kind of funeral.

I didn’t know him that well. So when I received an e-mail telling me my classmate Harry was dead — aged 24, a suicide — I did what I could. I turned to Facebook, the social-networking website where we were (indeed still are) “friends.”

The farewell messages on his Wall, the space on a Facebook profile where one’s friends can add notes, had just begun to filter in. At first, they had been ambiguous and spare: “I miss you!” said one. “Love you,” another. Then, posted at 10:33 A.M.: “Goodbye [Harry], we love you and miss you. I hope you are laughing and talking forever and making music in heaven.”

Facebook had made it a matter of record — it was all over for our friend Harry.

I had not thought much about him lately. Ours was one of those acquaintanceships forged in college that would endure as only a small, if crystalline, memory. A trove of amusing anecdotes had informed my enduring mental image of Harry: the sometime womanizer and accomplished boozer–turned–homosexual devotee of worthy causes. There was the time, for instance, when Harry disappeared with my friend into a darkroom known popularly as “the Orgasmatron 3000” at the office of Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson. Harry emerged some time later with an emptied bottle of Brut in hand; I believe my friend walked away with a bite mark.

These miscellaneous happenings were hardly glue for a lasting friendship. Once past the Ivy gates, Harry and I spent little effort keeping each other abreast of our lives. Ours was a situation, in short, ripe for an enduring Facebook “friendship.”

Had Harry and I been classmates in 1907 and not today, I suppose weeks would have passed before I met a common friend able to inform me of the tragedy. I can almost imagine the quiet, meandering recollection that would follow: the inescapable speculation on the matters of mental health and happiness, then the retelling of our undisturbed and (since two friends in the same sphere perceive much the same thing) consonant college memories of Harry.

Facebook provides an antidote to the ambiguities this earlier generation endured. Whether in matters of a classmate’s employment, or marriage, or death, Facebook makes so much information readily available.

It has taken only a few days for Harry’s online profile to be transformed into a continuously updated obituary. Many seem to want it that way — one friend pleaded on his Wall, “Facebook Please Do Not Erase This Profile.”

And Facebook is happy to oblige. When the company learns of a death, it immediately purges the record of the deceased’s erstwhile contact information, membership in online groups, and “personal info” (favorite books, movies, quotations, and so on). But, for a month, the user’s Wall, photographs, and basic information (hometown, birthdate, religion) are retained.

As I read the outpouring of remembrance on Harry’s Wall, I marveled at the detail my mental image of him had missed. A huge number of e-mourners thanked him for his “bear hugs” — I’d never received one. And at the end of his life, he apparently had a girlfriend, who seems charming from all the photos — I’d had no idea he swung that way still. Because I’m in the same Facebook “network” as she, I could even see her profile and read the consolations others had written on her Wall.

But there I stopped. All alone in the early-morning hours, I couldn’t help but feel almost prurient — or in any case, not mournful — as I perused Harry’s and his close friends’ profiles. Facebook is a place where users offer up details of themselves for the private consumption of others; I’ve always found that creepy, a feeling exacerbated by the circumstances. One could be unclothed, or eating a bowl of cereal, or listening to Cher and still electronically mourning the passing of Harry.

I thought I should post something, to leave a mark that I had been to Harry’s profile, and had come with the intention to mourn, not just to observe. But what could I say?

Many of the comments others left seemed glib. Someone wrote: “We’re going to miss you and your fun-spirited ways. I’ll collect my $10 loan plus interest from you in Heaven!” Another wrote of Harry’s apparent girlfriend, who is black: “I will drink [her] hot chocolate for you. That sounds dirty but you know what I’m talking about.” Exclamation marks and frowning emoticons, the telltale marks of Internet prose, were abundant.

Accompanying these comments were photographs of their authors. Nearly all the e-mourners, like most Facebook users, have profile pictures that capture them in a moment of revelry: smiling wide or winking for the camera, an intoxicating substance of choice in hand. My own profile picture shows me “undercover” — wearing an ostentatious peace-sign necklace, black-rim glasses, and corduroy aplenty — at a Howard Dean campaign rally in 2003. Collectively, our faces look fit for a frat party or a masquerade ball, but not a funeral.

Once before, I had dealt with a suicide amongst friends, when I was in middle school and my next-door neighbor, barely a teenager, shot himself. I was at home when it happened, watching The Simpons. My mother came downstairs, and it was immediately clear that an extraordinary tragedy had occurred. She couldn’t speak at first, and I feared the worst — that my father, perhaps, had died. At last, she blurted out my friend’s name, gave a pause that said everything, and finally sobbed, “He’s dead.”

I was called back to that cataclysmic moment everyday for years afterward. But Harry’s was different: I heard of the suicide through an e-mail within 48 hours of the event, confirmed through Facebook that Harry had died, and thereafter stood witness at my laptop as electronic condolences were filed by his college friends, now scattered by graduation or summer break. Absent were those feelings that attend one’s close proximity to a friend’s suicide. There was no guilt, except at my capacity for voyeurism. There was a certain shock, but it was dulled by the physical distance of others who had known Harry.

In the era of online social networking, one often hears about how MySpace, Facebook, and similar websites desensitize young people to their everyday interactions. Online, the fights are more frequent and venomous, the flirtations more direct and lascivious. But until Harry, I had not yet been called upon to imagine what footprint Facebook would leave on the solemn act of remembering the dead.

Here lay our friend Harry: inside an electronic network that brings disparate mourners together, even while making them feel emotionally distant and, when they powered down the laptop, utterly alone.

It was very late at night when I concluded not to post anything at all on Harry’s Wall, much less to trumpet the hope, as many of the e-mourners had, to see him again in the afterlife. News of Harry’s death had left me inert, silent — only the fingers moved, only the keystrokes could be heard. I needed to give this mournfulness I felt a physical dimension, and remedy what Facebook had wrought. When I pray, I typically assume no special posture, but now I got down on my knees and began, “Our Father, I pray for the repose of…” It was the least I could do.

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.

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