Essay: Communing With The Digital Dead

A smiling Cayne Miceli holds a fetishistic staff bejeweled with an animal skull, and gazes directly into the photographer’s lens. The image is mounted in a photo album with cream-coloured, corrugated pages. There is no caption, and no indication of when or where this photograph was taken. And now that Cayne Miceli is dead, how can anyone ever find out these details? But this image is not tucked away in some private, physical photo album – rather it has now been digitalized, immortalized, in a Facebook memorial page.

Cayne Miceli lives on in “the cloud,” the digital beyond, the virtual afterlife. Her friends and family not only use the memorial site to keep Cayne alive in their personal memories, but as a way to crowdsource, to consolidate their grief and their collective memories of her. Michael Bill, presumably a friend of Cayne’s, comments on the caption-less photograph:

“i remeber [sic] that trip like it was yesterday , she gave that boa to a guy that had lost his girl , and his clothing , PHISHING”

While many may find the online profiles of dead people disturbing, Academic Gaelle Faure posited that anecdotal evidence shows that memorialized profiles, like Cayne Miceli’s, can be helpful for grieving family and friends by enriching their engagement with their memories of the deceased and with others who knew them. An online repository of memories, like the more traditional media of diaries and letters, offer an archive of visual and textual resources to assist and provoke the memories of the living (Faure 2009). Anthropologist Patrick Stokes extends this argument stating that the dead, who continue to occupy a virtual space that they previously inhabited to communicate with others during their lives, give a sense of their continued presence after death via Facebook’s memorial pages (Stokes 2012).  Academic Neil McMahon recalls how one woman, whose brother was killed in combat in Afghanistan, took solace in his Facebook memorial page:

“It’s brought him back to life a little bit, you can hear him laughing. It’s something no one would have expected to happen. It’s a way of immortalizing him.” (McMahon 2011)

However this paper shall illustrate that whilst the use of aide-de-memoires in Facebook memorial pages can aid the grieving process, there are inherent limitations, risks and dangers in memorializing the digitally dead. A close examination of the virtual tombstones of Cayne Miceli and Apollo Simpson will underline that, as with any traditional photo archive, the guardian or curator of this virtual space is responsible for the organization, captioning, contextualization and selection of tasteful images within it. Historian James Opp warned of the inherent dangers of removing photographs from the context of their own production – in this case the original photo album – and digitalizing and enshrining them in a de-contextualized virtual archive (Opp 2008). In addition the focus or subject of the archive – in this case the deceased – is obviously not present to filter out embarrassing drunken photographs or to annotate a photograph’s content or its location in time and space. Memorial pages must also constantly be defended from attacks by online ‘trolls’ or voyeuristic ‘grief tourists’ (Phillips 2011; Marwick and Ellison 2012). And as the nature of public ritual changes in the age of social media, and displays of mourning become digitalized and virtual, photographs as public icons of remembrance are subject to “context collapse”. This collapse can occur in online contexts where friends and acquaintances from different social settings and classes can co-manufacture a Venn diagram of conflicting portrayals or understandings of the same person (Marwick and Boyd 2011). The two case studies in this paper highlight the advantages of photographs in Facebook memorial pages to keep the dead alive through collective memory, but also seek to illustrate how the page curator and mourner must navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of what Roland Barthes termed as connotational imagery and the context collapse within those images.

The Inception Of Virtual Shrines And Facebook

Whilst memorials only began appearing in an online incarnation as recently as 1995, the ritualization of the mourning process with visible symbols of personal mourning is not a new phenomenon. For example, in Mexico Dia de los Muertos, or ‘day of the dead’ celebrations can be traced back thousands of years. Even today families visit cemeteries to build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. In Victorian England bereavement stationery and mourning clothes allowed people to display their grief and remember the deceased (Carroll and Landry 2010). In the Nineteenth Century, ornate boxes carrying daguerreotypes of deceased spouses became more commonplace, as did lockets that contained not only a photograph but also a lock of the dead person’s hair (Batchen 2004).

“Hair became the corporeal auto-icon par excellence, the favored synecdoche – the real standing for the symbolic – perhaps not eternally incorruptible but long lasting enough, a bit of a person that lives eerily on as a souvenir. Hair, intimate and yet easily removed, is a convenient and pliable stand-in for the body of the missing, memorialized subject.”

The hybrid nature of the locket arguably heightens the experience of remembrance, acting as a conduit between the past, the present and the afterlife. The physical immediacy of a piece of your loved one’s body in the present, coupled with an image of them, was of great comfort to grieving spouses. The studium of familiarity with our loved one’s visage is transformed into the punctum of the accompanying lock of hair that hints at their continuing metaphysical, spiritual presence. Geoffrey Batchen stated, “a talismanic piece of the body thus adds a sort of sympathetic magic to the photograph, insurance against separation, whether temporary or permanent.” A photograph by its very nature is the capturing of a single, unrepeatable moment in time and makes us conscious of time’s passing and ultimately of death – but the locket hints at the possibility of everlasting life.

However, Batchen argues that memorial photographs also have a less altruistic motive, that they represent not their subjects or our desire to remember, but rather our own desire to be remembered thus obfuscating our motivations for contributing images to Facebook memorial albums (Batchen 2004).

“These photographs remind us that memorialization has little to do ‘with recalling the past; it is always about looking ahead toward that terrible, imagined, vacant future in which we ourselves will have been forgotten.”

This reliance on physical icons to aid the mourning and remembrance process has also continued well into the Twentieth Century.  Many Mexican and Mexican-American homes still display a distinctive form of photographic portraiture known as foto-escultura or “photo-sculpture”. Made by collectives of Mexican artisans from the late 1920s to the early 1980s, a foto-escultura is a photographic portrait that is cut and shaped to fit on a thin hand-carved wooden sculpture with a dimensional impact that is very lifelike. The sculptures are generally housed in simple wooden frames between two panes of glass and incorporate the mediums of photography, painting, and sculpture. These life-sized photo-doppelgängers or foto-escultura, like the locket, allowed mourners to retain a connection with the deceased. Art historian Monica Garza argues that the double-glazing used in these photo-sculptures gave these portraits the distanced intimacy of a reliquary (Batchen 2004). For Garza these foto-escultura merge the secular and the sacred, emphasizing the Catholic tradition of using three-dimensional effigies to remember and worship spiritual figures.

But the ritualization and iconization of public mourning is a moving target over time, one that evolves with the nascent technologies of each new generation (Carroll and Landry 2010; Kern et al 2013). With the birth of the Internet and the rapid growth of online media in the last twenty years, Brian Carroll and Katie Landry posited that these technological advances “yielded an increase in the geographic reach of the obituary and in the depth of information that could be offered.” The power and effectiveness of this reach was evidenced in 2001 and 2007 when, following the events of 9/11 and the Virginia Tech shootings, there was a global tsunami of grief online (Carroll and Landry 2010; Hess 2007). Aaron Hess wrote:

“The ability for individuals to replicate and distribute their own message to mass audiences amplifies the voices of the vernacular community to much louder decibel levels. Personal sentiments, including the ‘flashbulb memories’ of experience, are exchanged between authors and visitors.” (Hess 2007)

With more than a billion people now using Facebook to communicate within, and expand their social networks in life, it should not then come as a surprise to learn that social media are also being used in our digital deaths. In 2009, five years after its creation, the company gave users the ability to create formal memorial pages for dead friends or family members. Walter Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, stated that the development of photography in the late 1800s and the subsequent advancements in film allowed the masses, or lumpenproletariat, to also benefit from these technological developments via exhibits and early movie theatres (Benjamin 2008). This same democratization of technology in our own era means mourners no longer have to pay fees for maintaining their own memorial website, and that they can easily share photographs and videos as well as traditional written condolences.

Facebook offers two distinct page types for people who have died: memorial pages established by friends or family of the deceased, and the memorialization of existing Facebook pages of members who have died and which can only be accessed by “friends” (Marwick and Ellison 2012). Both case studies that this paper will examine are in the former category. No official figures exist for the exact number of Facebook memorial pages. However, with approximately three Facebook users dying every minute that means the potential creation of 1.8 million memorial pages in 2011, or 2.9 million in 2012 alone (Carroll and Romano 2010; Lustig 2012). A 2010 survey suggests that Facebook memorial pages have become a de facto and legitimate forum for mourning. Nearly 70 percent of participants had visited a memorial page – 43 percent of that number had visited the page within receiving notification of the person’s death (Carroll and Landry 2010).

This incredible butterfly who graced us all”: Cayne Miceli

Cayne Miceli died in police custody on Jan. 4 2009 in New Orleans after being charged for resisting arrest at a nearby health clinic. Cayne had refused to leave the clinic when a doctor had refused to admit her for what she said was a severe asthma attack. She had become distressed and abusive and the police were subsequently called by the medical staff. Strapped to a table in a police cell with five-point restraints, she died of asphyxiation just hours later (Filosa 2010). She was just 43 years old.

Fourteen months later Sophia Miceli, one of Cayne’s younger siblings, created a Facebook memorial page to remember her sister and to rally support for the court case against the New Orleans police department. Academic Deborah Chambers, in her examination of family photo albums from 1950s Australia, noted that this is not unusual – that it is primarily women who take on the role of ‘keepers of the past’ (Chambers 2003). She posited that the rapid suburbanization of western Sydney caused a fracturing of extended families. Chambers argues that photo albums were a means for women to perform their traditional matriarchal role in the family – namely as the binding, loving force that keeps the family connected – and that albums allowed women to retain an umbilical connection to that family.

“[Photo albums] represented the feminine motivation to reunite generations and geographies of isolated and dislocated units…[albums] highlight the celebration of spaces occupied by the family, domestic space, as feminine space: parenthood, children and friendships as relationships of community and belonging.”

This gendered notion of women as curators or gatekeepers of familial archives seems to also apply in memorializing death as it does in documenting life (Kern et al 2013). The majority of Facebook memorial pages reviewed for this paper were curated by female spouses or friends of the deceased. Despite advancements in technology, Chambers’ theory of the woman as the unifying force behind the creation of a celebratory familial space still holds true in the digital age. Sophia Miceli wrote in the memorial’s ‘About’ page:

“[this is] a place where we can all come to remember Cayne. Please post your thoughts, share your pictures & post stories about this incredible butterfly who graced us all.”

Since the creation of Cayne’s memorial page, 53 photographs have been uploaded to the crowdsourced album by a variety of friends and family members. They are a jumble of digitalized versions of Cayne’s artwork, and images of Cayne as a child and an adult. Unlike a prototypical photo album though, the images in the Facebook archive are not in any chronological order. Flick through the virtual album and you jump from an image of Cayne as an adult on a yacht, to one of her as a young teenage playing with her siblings on a cart, and then back to a modern day, close-up portrait of a sunhatted-Cayne.

In her study of photo albums from Japanese internment camps, Kirsten McAllister states that images in family albums are typically linear, depicting “cyclical repetitions and climactic moments such as births, weddings and deaths…[these] cyclical repetitions of the open-ended narrative ensure that the life of the family continues” (McAllister 2006). Whilst Martha Langford pointed out that there is no reason to conform to such a linear approach and that the construction of an album is moulded by the curator’s personal idiosyncrasies, the random ordering in Cayne’s memorial album is rather jarring, particularly with its mixture of portraits and facsimiles of her artwork. Certainly the ordering issue seems to be a fault with the Facebook page – images seem to be displayed in the order that they are added. But the haphazard order of the photos arguably makes the process of remembering Cayne’s life rather labyrinthine and disorienting, initiating what Langford called “a maddening game of concentration”.

As with the inscription on the memorial page’s ‘About’ page, the photographs within Cayne’s commemorative archive only hint at who she was. There is no contextual – or what Barthes would have called denotational – information about the deceased. We do not know where she grew up, whether she went to university, where she worked, if she was married or had pets, or what her hobbies were. This ignorance is compounded by the lack of captions on the majority of the photographs. Academic Geoffrey Batchen emphasized how “simple captions, extended commentaries, or passages of verse, can enliven images and enhance their capacity to arouse our emotions” (Batchen 2004).

If we return to the photograph of Cayne holding the skull-headed staff, you will notice there is no caption. It seems that even Sophia Miceli did not know where this photograph was taken. The one comment from friend Michael Bill gives us some sense of who Cayne was as a person, that this was some a part of some road trip and just teases us with a you-just-had-to-be-there note. But we still don’t know the when and the where of this photograph. But maybe that’s not even important to those who come and ‘visit’ Cayne online. Maybe the specifics do not matter – it is remembering the who, not the when and where that her friends and family care about. But without descriptive captions many of the commemorative images of Cayne are only imbued with what Roland Barthes termed as connotational meaning (Barthes 1978). Namely the absence of any personal background knowledge on the part of the viewer, or contextual captions, the power or impact of an image can be muffled. Susan Sontag stated, “photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.”

Similarly most of the other album images show Cayne with her family, playing Scrabble, on a beach, and at a jazz festival – but again a lack of captions reveals little about Cayne as a person to those who never knew her. But perhaps that is the point – that these albums are for the benefit for those who knew Cayne intimately, and not for voyeuristic grief tourists. Should these intimate portraits and memories of Cayne not be kept private while a family grieves? Should any memorial not be sacred and not monetized? Certainly not a place besmirched with Facebook advertisements for WIND mobile offers that inappropriately warn that “your time is running out.” In fact the lack of captions arguably provokes an interactive remembrance of Cayne as people crowdsource their memories in an attempt to triangulate the where and when of these archived images. These images essentially also act as visual prompts for reminiscing, and are not incidental to the grieving process. The majority of comments in these Facebook memorial pages are not on the central ‘wall’, but responses to posted images. The human eye is far more responsive to imagery than text, and thus will be a far more effective medium to unearth and free forgotten memories of the deceased.

One of the most compelling images of Cayne shows her standing in a nondescript car park, arms widespread, wearing a goofy grin and John Lennon-esque sunglasses. There’s a slight tear in the top right corner, and a large crease runs across the original photograph through Cayne’s forehead. This would suggest the photograph was not stored safely in an album but a loved one’s wallet or purse. The physical scarring of the image – in addition to the capturing of this natural, candid moment in time of a fun-loving Cayne – enhances the punctum of this image. It reminds us how physically, as well as emotionally, precious the physical photograph is. The caption of this image simply reads “One of my favorites.” It is only as a result of subsequent comments by friends that any further contextual information is attained. “This was taken in Bayview Park parking lot=),” wrote Llisa James. “That was a great afternoon,” recalled Michael Bill. Just these two comments help us triangulate the when and the where, and that she was hanging out with friends. Only one out of the 53 photographs in the Facebook has an exact date and details attached to it – a rather poignant photograph of the last time the whole family was together before Cayne’s death. Interestingly this photograph triggers additional anecdotes from that day, underlining the power of imagery over text in recreating memories. “look at Caroline…she was car sick,” writes Cristy Miceli Richmond, another of Cayne’s sisters.

But conversely, perhaps the lack of captions in this digital album also has a downside for those who did know Cayne as intimately. Academic Martha Langford argued that the physical family album encourages a cross-generational exchange, ensuring the continuity of knowledge within the familial circle (Langford 2008). Furthermore, the burgeoning Kodak culture in the middle of the last century aided traditional storytelling methods:

“…the organization of photographs into [physical] albums has been one way of preserving the structures of oral tradition for new users in the present.”

Langford posited that the showing and telling of an album is a performance, whereby an older interpreter literally holds our hands and walks us through “the inside stories that frame the pictures, animating the most stilted of studio portraits with family secrets and subversive tales.” The physical album can also act as a mnemonic device, one that elicits memories interconnected to the photograph being viewed. “Voices must be heard for memories to be preserved, for the album to fulfill its function,” wrote Langford. “Entrusting an album to a museum suspends its sustaining conversation, stripping the album of its social function and meaning.”

Viewing Facebook album photographs online is arguably a more solitary, anti-social way of keeping someone’s memory alive. The digital photo, unlike its physical counterpart, will not decay – but Langford argues it is ironically the physical incarnation of the image that will elicit greater comfort and more memories. Joshua Bell also found this to be true of the tribes in Papua New Guinea where photographs were a physical catalyst for remembrance (Bell 2003). Bell wrote, “[The photographs were] touched, with the outline of people and objects traced by fingertips and, in more private settings, held intimately while crying.” Viewing images on a computer screen would be hard-pressed to elicit the same kind of emotional reaction – let alone a communal, cathartic outpouring of grief. The very logistics of having friends and family huddle around a solitary computer screen – unlike the passing around of the physical photograph – restricts any opportunity to reminisce about the deceased. The comments made on the photographs of Cayne were presumably made by friends surfing by themselves, whereas “albums are prompts for speech, an excuse for friends and families to gather, for stories to be exchanged, incidents to be recalled, biographies to be invented” (Batchen 2004).

Another of the images of Cayne on a yacht with friends illustrates the dangers of “context collapse” (Marwick and Ellison 2012). This term refers to how it is possible for friends and acquaintances from different social settings, classes and cultures to unintentionally share conflicting portrayals or understandings of a person. The image of a yuppie-looking Cayne at yacht club is jarring when shown alongside the majority of images that portray her as a peace-loving, florally-dressed hippie. With Cayne unable to manage or curate the images on her memorial page, it is possible that certain images she wanted only certain people to see, would now be visible to all. As a result context collapse creates a kind of Venn diagram of a person’s memory – it reduces the collective, overlapping memory of the deceased.

‘Hope you make an appearance at the wedding, I’ll know your there!’: Apollo Simpson

On the morning of December 27 2011 gunshots rang out in the 9500 block of 125th Street in Surrey, British Columbia. One hour later, the body of Apollo Simpson was spotted and a 911 call was finally made. Police were to link the death of the 28-year old to his alleged involvement with a local gang. Just one day later Melissa Smythe, a friend of Apollo’s, set up a Facebook memorial page to honour his memory and to raise funds for his funeral. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Melissa said the memorial site was “a place where people can go and tell their stories, and share their pictures, and see him in his happy times” (Ellison 2011).

Since the creation of Apollo’s memorial page, his friends have uploaded 75 photographs to the album. Unlike Cayne’s commemorative album, there are no family or childhood photographs. Rather the majority of the images appear to have been taken in the years immediately preceding Apollo’s death. They are primarily taken in bars, at house parties and in friend’s homes. One can only surmise why there is this absence, or void, in Apollo’s photographic timeline. In these two case studies this absence seems not to be due to the fact that both Cayne and Apollo led very different lives, but rather due to the curatorship of the online memorials. Melissa Smythe, the curator, had only been a friend of Apollo’s for the five years preceding his death. This would explain why many of the photographs – photographs she had taken – only showed Apollo in this final phase of his life. This disconnect between Melissa and Apollo’s other childhood friends could also be explained by what academic Beverley Fehr labelled as the “friendship cycle” (Fehr 2000). This term explains how as people progress through different stages of their life – high school, university, work and parenthood – we make friends from different social spaces. Fehr argues that typically, as we grow older, people remain most connected to their current circle of friends, often neglecting older friends from previous spaces. Therefore Melissa could have been a friend from the most current iteration of Apollo’s “friendship cycle” – a friend who was disconnected from his childhood friends, and therefore from their earlier archive of memories and photographs. Unlike Cayne’s sister, Melissa did not have the same easy access to the family archive of childhood photographs – and this is assuming that Apollo’s working class family even had access to a camera. Considering Melissa created the Facebook memorial page one day after Apollo’s death, it would have been insensitive of her to contact her grieving family for photographs. Again, this is not an obstacle that would have faced Cayne’s sister who was not only already at ‘Ground Zero’ of a family’s grief, but also presumably had unrestricted access to a lifetime of photographs featuring Cayne. But perhaps Apollo’s parents did want to share these childhood photographs but were unable to, due to technological illiteracy? It is an ageist assumption, but typically those generations who have not grown up with the Internet are technophobic, less tech-savvy and often feel embarrassed to admit it. This would explain how they would be unable to scan the physical photograph into its digital version, let alone being able to post the images to Facebook. Notably curators of both memorial pages are young, social media-savvy women.

But whatever the reason for this photographic void in Apollo’s life, as with the pictures of Cayne, the viewer of this album has to resort to guesswork. There are very few contextual captions that define the where and when of these snapshots in time. One such image shows a tanned and relaxed Apollo leaning back in his chair in a crowded bar. A half-empty bottle of beer sits in front of him. He is the only one aware of the photograph being taken, and looks directly at the photographer. The caption simply reads “@ ponchos” – presumably one of his local watering holes. One person comments on the photo, writing “the good old days from ponchos…miss that place…lol.” Another shows Apollo playing with an female friend in a water park. The caption simply reads “Apollo and Steph” but again does not tell us when or where this photo was taken, or whether this was part of a special occasion. One friend Stephanie – presumably the Steph in the image – writes, “This was such a fun day!!! so many memories.” But she keeps those memories to herself, not letting the viewer in on what happened that day.

But academic Rebecca Kern underlined that individuals who post comments and images to Facebook memorial pages see them as part of a direct and continuing dialogue with the deceased  (Kern et al 2013). “In the poster’s mind, Facebook is a place to commune with the dead in a space where the communication may actually be ‘received’,” wrote Kern. “The dead live on in the virtual cloud, and can hear or read the messages from the living.” Despite having died almost 18 months ago, a friend posted on his memorial page as recently as April 4 2013. Geoffrey Batchen posited that commemorative photographs or artifacts are in essence are time machines that seek to counteract the fact of death. He wrote, “[photographs] ask us to remember the subjects to whom they are dedicated, to sense them as still-living beings, as presences” (Batchen 2004). This perhaps explains why Apollo’s friends do not feel the need to explain the where and when of these photographs. These photographs are not meant to be a meticulous record of one’s life – the mundane minutiae of what they did, where they did it and when. Rather these images serve to somehow define, reconstruct the essence of who the deceased was as a person. And so if these photographs and comments are indeed part of a continuing conversation with the online spirit of Apollo, then there is no need to reiterate these details – he already knows where and when the image was taken and what happened that day.

The phenomenon of conversing with the deceased is evident in a number of the images posted within Apollo’s Facebook memorial album, and the commentary attached to them. One photograph shows an illuminated stick figure sat on a swing bench at night. The white words “i miss you” – with small hearts as the dots on the ‘i’s – appear to the right of the solitary figure. What is unusual is not simply the fact that a friend posted a meme that does not feature Apollo himself, but the accompanying colloquial post. “Always thinking of ya!! Hope you can make an appearance at the wedding!! ♥ I’ll know your there :-),” wrote Amber McCrea. Another meme, posted on April 20 2012, is dedicated to Apollo on the day that cannabis is celebrated annually around the world. “HAPPY 420 MY FRIEND!!! I know any clouds that are up in the sky today are from you Smoken a Phatty with the Big Guy!!! Love n Miss Ya!!!!♥,” reads the comment. This message is all the more poignant considering police believe it was Apollo’s involvement with gangs and drugs that led to his fatal shooting.

In addition to the memes posted on Apollo’s memorial page, the types of images posted vary drastically to those posted to Cayne’s album. One friend posted a screenshot of his last Facebook conversation with Apollo that involved the possibility of a trip to Mexico. The friend regretfully wrote, “Our last words together. I never had a chance to get together with him after being away for 7+ years.” Another friend posted a photograph of a tattoo dedicated to Apollo’s memory etched into the middle of his back. The tattoo still looks red and raw. “my first tattoo goes out to my cousin and by far one of the best friends ive ever had,” writes the friend. “I miss you apollo its killing me inside but you will never be forgotten!!!” The sharing of this atypical memorial image does surprisingly seem to be important amongst, and appreciated by, fellow mourners. “Omg that is so awesome now he is always and forever with u in ur heart and in this tattie,” writes one friend. “omg that is perfect!! he is lovin it,” writes another. This permanent, corporeal dedication not only shows others just how much Apollo was loved, but ensures that his memory lives on in numerous indelible media – namely online and in flesh. Interestingly these images, whilst not featuring the deceased himself, are still a cathartic part of the online grieving process.

There are also numerous photographs documenting a candlelit vigil held in a Surrey park immediately following Apollo’s death. Photographs of Apollo are propped up ad hoc against a park wall, illuminated by candlelight. Other photographs show what an urn, presumably containing Apollo’s ashes. The urn is bookended with a high school football photo of Apollo, and sporting trophies he must have won. A number of additional, more recent photographs and candles decorate the tabletop reliquary. These particular images are jarring in themselves and when compared to other Facebook memorial pages. Most, if not all, online albums reviewed for this paper chose to focus on the life of the deceased rather than the funeral process itself.

Patrick Stokes argued that memorial pages are not always altruistically crowdsourced shrines, that the visual and textual resources within assist solely the memories of individual “survivors” (Stokes 2012). This could explain the lack of contextual captioning – the memories attached to a photo are intimate and not something we wish to share. Kern also pointed out the irony of how Facebook, while a public forum, is used mainly in private settings such as one’s home. But she actually defends this fact, arguing that these online memorials allow us, particularly women, to mourn privately albeit in a disassociative way.

“Physical expressions of grief, such as crying, are frequently associated with the feminine, and are considered unacceptable behaviour for men, but written expressions of grief are devoid of the physical, making grieving in this way culturally acceptable.”

Kern emphasizes that, despite the traditional nature of grieving publicly, Facebook memorial pages help circumnavigate some of the cultural taboos surrounding death. Marwick and Ellison also stated that many of the respondents in a survey they conducted had stated “they used Facebook to avoid the social awkwardness of not knowing what to say to family and friends [at the funeral]” (Marwick and Ellison 2010). Facebook essentially gives mourners a non-intrusive way to show that they care. One study also concluded that a certain demographic, typically high school youth and college students, are often excluded or marginalized by more traditional memorial rites and rituals online (Doka 1998). This “disenfranchisement” forced this young demographic to resort to alternative online means to honour a friendship and express their grief. Several surveys have illustrated that more than 15 percent of online memorials are posted by friends of the deceased as opposed to family members (Roberts et al 2003; Roberts and Vidal 2000). Considering Apollo’s alleged entanglement with those in the drug industry, it would not be surprising if many of his friends were not invited to his funeral and so used his memorial page as the medium to bid a final farewell to him.

As with Cayne Miceli’s Facebook memorial page, there is potential context collapse within Apollo’s commemorative photo album. Images of him playing with young children – possibly his own son or nieces and nephews – are portrayed alongside images of him smoking what looks like a joint. Another image shows Apollo surrounded by stuffed toys working at the PNE in Vancouver where he was in charge of a stall. One former work colleague wrote, “yah we definately were a trio then. man late nights early mornings we would all take turns makin sure we all made it out to work on time haha. oh what a good year that was.” Photos in a memorial page often come from different social circles or facets of the deceased’s life, increasing the probability that his surviving friends and family will encounter these multiple parallel and often conflicting depictions of the deceased. It may, for example, may be potentially shocking, disrespectful or disarming to former colleagues or his young son to see images of Apollo smoking marijuana in his memorial album. It is therefore vitally important that the curator of this archive to exercise what they called “impression management” (Marwick and Ellison 2012). In life users of Facebook and other social media carefully construct an online identity that is usually self-consciously flattering (Stokes 2012). We determine what images to post on Facebook and we can dictate which circles of friends get to see those images. In essence Facebook allows us to manage our multiple personalities – or rather how we want to appear to our different social and familial circles. However, obviously once we die we are powerless to distinguish who sees what. Marwick and Ellison wrote that “therefore the page moderator must take on this chore…to work together to enforce norms of appropriateness.”

Conclusion: The Wild West And Facebook Memorial Pages

These advancements in technology and the ability to memorialize a loved one through photographs and comments on a Facebook memorial page ultimately raise an important question: just because the technology can let us do it, should we? Reactions to these kinds of services have been centrifugally divisive.  Elizabeth Hallam and Jenny Hockey argued that the mourning and memorialization of a loved one is often, and should be, a private family affair (Hallam and Hockey 2001). They stated that many families did create memory books and photo albums to remember the departed, but that these were kept in private spaces opened only occasionally for momentary reflection. In her seminal work, On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that the ubiquity of cameras in the Twentieth Century led to photography becoming a social rite and an integral part of the nuclear family (Sontag 2001). “Not to take pictures of one’s children, particularly when they are small, is a sign of parental indifference,” Sontag wrote. But could her assertion of the social pressures of taking photographs of the living, not also be applied to the similar pressures of being forced to post images of the dead? One could argue that with the popularization of Facebook memorial pages, you would be deemed not to love your deceased family member if you were not to create such a page and attach photographic memories to it.

But many others have spoken out in favour of these memorial pages making death a public affair. However, Rebecca Kern argued that families have no right to monopolize the memorialization or memory of the deceased. A cemetery, like Facebook memorial pages, is a public place where mourners can visit the dead, pay their respects and decorate their tombstone with flowers or wreaths, or in this case photographs and words (Kern et al 2013). For Hallam and Hockey the age-old acronym of R.I.P. – or Rest In Peace – should be respected even in the digital era. However, for Kern it stood instead for Remain In Perpetuity – namely that Facebook memorial pages actually provide a space for family and friends to engage with, and in a metaphysical sense keep alive, the deceased in a mediated, virtual and spiritual space. Adele McAlear, a Montreal-based expert, stated that our society has still yet to come to terms with how to cope with online memorials:

“We have had millennia to develop funeral and memorial practices in our world. The digital world is so new – it’s 20 years old and the dawn of social media is only 8 years old and people don’t know what to do. There’s no tradition yet, there’s no death norms within the digital space, it’s a Wild West and people are just doing their best to make their way.” (McAlear 2013)

But despite the dichotomous arguments for whether online mourning should be public or private, this paper illustrates that whilst Facebook memorial pages aids the grieving process, they can also hinder it. As with any traditional archive, the photographs should be contextualized and captioned to improve the navigability and coherence of the album, and so contribute to a crowdsourced portrayal of who the deceased was. But with an online memorial that same curator has an additional responsibility manage the opportunity for context collapse within the memorial’s album. Conflicting and unflattering photographs that can be viewed by all of the deceased’s varying social and familial circles can arguably impede the mourning ritual. And as we are starting to see even more extreme technological trends – such as interactive talking avatars based on numerous photographs of the deceased – it is vital for current memorial curators to set the precedent of exercising respect and restraint in this digitalized Wild West.


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