Tombstone2.0: the Grief Olympics move online

Paul Raven @ 08-10-2009

remembering the deadThe Guardian has an interesting article about the recent rise of memorial websites and online tributes to the dead – a phenomenon which, until now, I was largely unaware of. Perhaps because it’s a fairly new thing… [image by kevindooley]

The blossoming of memorial websites is a relatively new phenomenon. “I think there were two things that happened,” says Jonathan Davies, who founded memorial site Much Loved.”The death of Diana brought about a change in how we grieve publicly, and then the internet connected people and provided a place for it. Two or three years ago, when we launched, we were quite unusual.” Now there are lots of host sites, he points out, as well as families and friends starting their own pages.

Davies set up his site, which currently has around 12,000 memorials, in 2007, 12 years after his brother died suddenly at the age of 21. “It was a drugs-related death and I think this was one of the reasons why his friends didn’t get in touch with our family – there was a police investigation, and I think his friends were worried about how we would react, which led to this wall of silence,” he says. “I think that actually made our grieving period worse. I felt a website would have opened up the channels of communication.”

So far, so reasonable – setting up a website to honour a deceased relative is surely no weirder than setting one up for your hobby or community group. Far cheaper and more accessible than a physical memorial, too, when you consider that Joe Average is unlikely to have thousands of people wanting to pay tribute at his final resting place, digital or otherwise… but that mention of the Princess Di episode flicked the edge of my alarm bell. Back to Davies:

Does it say something about us as a society, that something so private as grief is now often done so publicly? “I do think grief is becoming embraced more by communities – by that I mean people outside the immediate family. I remember in the mid-90s, when my brother died, people would ignore us because they didn’t know what to say. That’s beginning to change now.”

[…]

But is this outpouring of grief, often for celebrities, but also for those in the news, such as Lafferty and Rowe, people the mourners might never have met, actually genuine? “It is, absolutely,” says clinical psychologist Oliver James, “because they are talking about themselves. What is happening is that instead of gaining insight, they are acting out. Instead of properly apprehending their own difficulties, a large proportion of the people who leave these messages are identifying with the difficulties of someone else and emoting. Although the feeling is authentic and truly felt, there is a histrionic dimension to it.

No kidding. People have always been weird about celebrity deaths, but the whole Diana business marked a sort of sea change or tipping point whereby it became fashionable to don one’s hair-shirt. And while I stand to be accused of cynicism, I’m resolute in my belief that this is less a manifestation of increasing compassion in the general public than it is a carefully developed and sustained type of media-generated hysteria.

There’s always been ways to make money out of the dead and those who mourn them, but modern communications media makes it easier to amplify and sustain the perfectly reasonable sadness felt when a person you admire from a distance shuffles off this mortal coil – and the longer you can sustain that grief, the more special edition newspapers you can sell. It seems I’m not alone in my cynicism:

Much Loved is run as a registered charity, aimed at helping families to set up their own sites, but you can’t escape the feeling that other sites might have more cynical motives. On Lasting Tribute, which is owned by the Daily Mail newspaper group, there is a shop where you can buy personalised candles, benches and jewellery. For £1, you can also leave a virtual “gift” on people’s pages – these include pictures of teddy bears, flags, a pint of beer or a heart. The site set up for Georgia Rowe – which, at the time of writing did not have any tributes, includes a link to the local newspaper’s report on her death. A newspaper owned by the Daily Mail group.

Well, what do you know…newspapers have always profited from the misery of others, so I guess it’s no great surprise to see the Grief Olympics moving online as print withers and television fragments. And while it’s nice to think that families and friends can find a way to express their feelings about the dead, the prospect of the web becoming increasingly clogged with cloying sentiment and histrionic wailing over the deaths of marginal and/or faded celebrities is not one that fills me with contentment. There’s something grotesque about it, something vicarious and hollow… but maybe that’s just me seeing my own faults in others.

Can you think of any science fiction stories that have dealt with this topic? The only one that leaps to mind for me is”The Grave of My Beloved” by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia, which wryly highlights the financial trap of renting a digital memorial before trekking off into traditionally Watsonian weirdness…