How Digital Graveyards are Changing the Culture Around Grieving

“I look at my mum’s old house on Google maps street view, the house where I grew up. It says ‘Image captured May 2009’. There is a light on in her bedroom. It is still her house, she is still alive, I am still visiting every few months on the train to Bodmin Parkway…” In 2021, a Twitter user’s poignant note on grieving her mother started off a discussion on how Google Maps Street View, the late loved ones were still trotting along, some gardening, some taking their dogs on walks. As per a report that appeared in Vox, if one scrolls deep enough down the lanes of Street View and uses a time travel feature, they might come across pictures of their loved ones frozen into eternity by a Google camera, saved in Google Maps.

On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, we unconsciously leave behind a legacy wrought in extraordinarily candid details, which are to stay up forever, pixelated into our personal history long after we’re gone. As per a Medium.com report, as of Q2 2020, there were about 10 million to 30 million deceased users on Facebook and Facebook-owned platforms. This means that about 1% of all Facebook users were dead. There is a certain theory, although it can have no verifiable mathematical basis, that proposes that by 2065, the number of dead shall outnumber the living on Facebook. This hypothesis may be read on a website called “What If”.

We have a strange love for the departed: even when we don’t know them, we might feel a distant semi-affection. You might come across a memorialised Facebook profile and feel like someone left a light on even though no one lived in the room anymore, but the matter is more complex and quite disconcerting for the people who knew them while they lived. Do they let go or hold on: obsessively go through photographs, try to catch a glimpse of the inner lives that are now uninhabited, or do they think skirting around grief is the only way of outlasting it?

Prarthana Jaiswal (name changed), a graduate student, lost her father barely days ago. His Facebook profile is up and she hasn’t had it memorialised. She has always known his password. “I open it sometimes, and check the notifications. It’s weird,” she says. “I still tag him in family pictures like I used to. Only now, I know that there won’t be a cute comment from him like before. His WhatsApp account remains as well. I check our conversations and I know I will never get replies in that chat box again. Only if I could get a reply from him… How wonderful it would’ve been.” Jaiswal adds that, as of now, she is leaning towards keeping all of her father’s profiles active so that people may remember him.

Rishabh Bhatnagar, journalist, who lost his mother five years ago, said he didn’t give much thought to why he was getting her Facebook account memorialised. “Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s good. It limits the notifications, friend requests and other things that pop up on her account. So it was mostly for my sake.” He isn’t entirely comfortable with going through the account or the photos she had posted on there. “It does tend to affect me. I’m not very comfortable with it yet,” he adds. Bhatnagar does think that having the profiles of deceased persons stay up can be a good way to remember them, but he isn’t sure how much that holds true in the “era of shi*posting”, when one’s social media profile could hardly be an accurate representation of who they were.

Abhishek Roy, who works at Amazon India, on the other hand, feels entirely more comfortable- comforted, even- with the profile of a departed friend staying up. They went to school together in Kolkata, and his friend died by suicide last year. His Facebook profile soon became a memorial of sorts, with friends and classmates, close or not, flocking to it to express their shock, or recount the memories they had shared, or simply to write, “Come back” or “I miss you.” While to immediate family this could well become a nuisance, it wasn’t so for friends who perhaps weren’t as grievously affected. For them, this was a way to feel closer to the person who had passed on. Roy said, “This is the only way to have some part of him stay among us. With everyone sharing their favourite memories of him on his Facebook profile, I got to know many stories I hadn’t known earlier.” Roy’s own warmest memory with his friend involved the latter boarding the school bus, geared up in mufflers and monkey caps, something that had caused him to be nicknamed the resident grandfather of the bus.

For Sonal Sharma (name changed), journalist, her estranged friend’s private Instagram account is yet another reminder that they had been locked out of each other’s lives in the days leading up to the latter’s passing. Sharma also finds herself in a similar predicament about her cousin whom she lost in a road accident. His profile on Instagram was memorialised. For her, it’s sometimes a comfort and sometimes not. In the moments when she realises that there is no other way of meeting him, she is glad that the profile, his photos, are still up there. Other times, it’s just more of a reminder that there really is no other way of reaching him.

Jean Baudrillard’s discussion of simulation and simulacra has never been more pertinent than in 2022, with a booming NFT and metaverse culture. In the simplest of terms, while a simulation is an imitation of a real thing, a simulacra is a symbol that represents something that no longer exists, or never did to begin with. An NFT, for example, may arguably exist completely in the realm of what Baudrillard termed the pure simulacrum, where not even a pretense of reality is needed any longer. What, then, are the profiles of deceased persons – simulations or simulacra? Had these virtual spaces meant anything in the first place? If yes, do they still? The light of some stars reaches us long after they’re gone, and we live and die inside of it. In the end, Jay Gatsby followed a green light on Daisy’s turf, and that may be what human beings will always do: continue in the pursuit of whatever shines bright, even if from an empty room.

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