Virtual Mourning for the Digital Epitaph

by M-Gillies

Social media has provided many people around the world with a means to share their grief virtually.

Memorials of the elite, rich and famous; celebrities, presidents, dictators, kings and queens, princes and princesses, popes, martyrs and saints-to-be have always been widely honored in the rapidly advancing era of social media from twitter trends and hash-tags to Facebook status updates commemorating and announcing the passings of iconic figures. But with the growth of social media and the more confident, assertive and self-satisfactory identity that the Me Generation have developed, the focus isn’t singularly geared toward the rich and famous any longer.

Most people in this day and age have multiple profiles from Facebook, Twitter and Myspace to YouTube and Tumblr. And while these profiles have been a way for people to develop friendships and network with people from around the world, these very profiles also become memorials to them when they die.

In fact, as a byproduct of broadcasting our lives on social networking sites, it shouldn’t be considered a new trend to see many people turning to digital sites for coping with grief and expressing our mourning. For the last decade, social media sites have quickly turned into virtual memorial sites for people after they die, and with Facebook boosting more than 750 million members to date, anywhere from 1.8 to 3 million Facebook users are estimated to die in 2011 according to digital legacy sites like and, turning their profiles into digital epitaphs.

“It would be inappropriate to show up at someone’s door, but the internet provides an alternative way to reach out to people without being in their face,” says Anabel Quan-Haase, Associate Professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario. “When you see a person’s profile still on Facebook it gives them immortality. For a moment in time, their online persona is exactly the way they left it.”

Perhaps the best example of the popularity in virtual memorials can be the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings that occurred April 16, 2007. With the deaths of 32 students leaving the world in a state of shock and despair, friends began setting up memorials in honor of the victims, with university students across the continent setting up online support groups. To this day, the Virginia Tech Shooting Memorial Facebook page is still in use since first being created on the day of the murders.

To ensure the integrity of user profiles, Facebook administrators have often acted swiftly in classifying the pages of users as a Memorial State upon learning of a user who has passed away. It is with this feature that the page of a user rendered inert, only allowing certain actions to take place, such as friends and families posting messages and photos, and further only allowing confirmed friends and family the ability to post messages.

But virtual memorials aren’t restricted to profile pages. Members of the gaming community have also discovered that death doesn’t necessarily mean that a player cannot be memorialized, particularly after the demise of one young player of the popular online game World of Warcraft. It was upon the news of this player’s death that members of her team formed a memorial service online where avatar characters could view the body and share their memories amongst one another.

Even the virtual world known as Second Life has developed areas within its community where members can mourn the dead, such as the island called Memoris, which hosts a number of grave sites that can be rented in memory of the deceased.

With these virtual memorials springing up all over the web, many sites have scrambled to keep up with the growing trend to remember the beloved online. Though some of these companies are free-service, others are seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the trend, like “I will Remember” and “The Digital Beyond”. While there is a charge, it is in lieu of having ads posted within the site, giving users a place to remember their loved ones without the bombardment of consumerism.

“In the advent of growing online populations that are also inevitably aging, it’s fair to say that grieving online is becoming a new and necessary death ritual,” said Kimberly Falconer, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied online grieving.

Through Falconer’s studies, she’s assessed that there are psychological values of online grieving which can act as a grief management tool when working through the four stages of mourning.

“At a broad level,” Falconer said. “The faster communication, more widespread ability to normalize experience and share emotions, increased access to social support and more durable communities, and the increasing safety and accessibility with which online memorials can be established are clear advantages.”


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