Jason Feifer’s “Selfies at Funerals” Tumblr has pushed all the Internet’s rage levers: In photos culled from Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, the Tumblr shows us oblivious teens, dressed in black, pouting for their iPhones as their relatives are laid to rest somewhere outside the frame. The images have hashtags like #funeral, #grandad, #sadday, and #RIPAuntTookie. Descriptions include, “this was a funeral selfie am I going to hell ((yes))” and “Love my hair today. Hate why I’m dressed up #funeral.”
Freaking out over teenage stunts like this is what the web was made for, so the backlash was fierce: Business Insider decried the “narcissistic impulse to take and post a gratuitous photo…in the name of Instagram validation” and the Huffington Post took the images as “evidence the apocalypse can’t come soon enough.” Then came Sober Reflection. What if society has failed these kids by refusing to “engage with the real processes of death,” wondered Caitlin Doughty at Jezebel. What if “selfies at funerals are one of their only outlets to ritual and mourning in the age of the smartphone?” (What if the Internet has so distanced us from our humanity that we no longer know what death even means? Like, there’s always CTRL-SHIFT-T, right?) Tracy Clark Flory at Salon saw the snaps as natural responses to grief, callow but poignant signs of how “we all want our sadness to matter.”
None of these takeaways feel right. The photos aren’t unexpectedly beautiful documents of sorrow, nor are they proof that we don’t prepare children to deal with mortality. I don’t even think they qualify as dumb acts of exploitation (although there is one picture in which the mugging kid accidentally catches his grandma’s body in the background, oops). But they did get me thinking about how the Internet has changed what mourning looks like. It’s common practice now to pay condolences on a dead friend’s Facebook page or tweet out your sorrow when a famous person passes. Apps have sprung up to preserve someone’s digital presence once they’re gone. When a certain type of celebrity dies, our social media feeds explode with tributes, and we are all faced with a choice: publicly acknowledge how profoundly Lou Reed changed your life, even if he didn’t, or intentionally hold yourself back because tweeting with the masses doesn’t seem like something a real fan would do. Maybe just one RT?
That we wrestle with death on social media isn’t surprising. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are increasingly where we go to process our inner thoughts and feelings about pretty much everything. In a recent piece for Fast Company, Christina Chaey asked whether social media updates were becoming just another stage in the grieving process, in the same way that online notices now announce “engagements, babies and new jobs.” After the Aurora shooting, Callie Schweitzer marveled at how platforms like Twitter allowed us to intimately know (or feel like we knew) the victims who come to life in their digital trails.
And yet there is a sense that social media feeds are somehow inappropriate places to talk about death. Should an exception to the share-everything rule be made for something as solemn as mortality? Is it somehow more tasteful, even nobler, to keep grief private? If that’s the case, the problem with Internet mourning far predates the Internet: People have been putting their sadness on display—wearing black, holding ceremonies—since the ancient Greeks first hired mourners to tear out their hair at funerals. Social media may make it easier to launch a stream of frown-y faces into the ether, but Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent the impulse to reach out when you’re hurting.
Perhaps it's the ephemerality of online mourning that trivializes it—the word limits mocking death's enormity. (Boil down your feelings about Grandma into 140 characters; leave room for a clever hashtag!) Social media platforms favor a tone of snark and irony, not earnestness, which can make plaintive expressions of grief hard to parse. And since we use Twitter and Facebook in part to create a public persona, our posts always run the risk of appearing self-promotional, inauthentic: It’s never quite clear whether someone is actually upset about the latest Hollywood overdose or just trying to seem that way.
Of course, this makes our online interactions pretty much the same as our offline ones: a stream of true and false statements mixed together, adding up to a social self that is sort of us and sort of not. The same person can be a total poseur when liking her friend’s Mrs. Krabappel supercut on Facebook and a sad niece posting honestly about her dead aunt to Tumblr. And while RTing an acquaintance’s remembrance of Adam Yauch is far easier than writing your own, which can make some online mourning seem cheap or flippant, a brief pang of sadness isn’t fake just because it fails to take over your life. I’m not sure what we gain from suppressing the small reactions, the more fleeting and subtle ripples of feeling, that social media technologies help us capture. Because of Facebook, I can be part of a fond memory with a quick “like”; on Twitter, I can share my momentary sadness when the menacing mobster from that one movie dies by simply favoriting.
And if it’s more than just momentary sadness? If the person who has died meant a lot to you, and you want to share that with the world, or at least all your friends of friends? You want to write on that person’s wall about how much you loved them and change your profile picture to that great one of the two of you from high school and tweet what’s going on in your life (which might be that you are at a funeral today, click), so that you can get support from your community? I believe that’s called grieving.