How Facebook Changes the Way We Mourn Death (Part 1)(Note: the is the first post in a four-part series about Facebook and death.)

I’ve been thinking about my friend Ryan lately.

Actually, I’ll call him “Bubba” — because, well, that’s what we always called him prior to his death. The name “Ryan”, to me, is exclusively post-mortem. It’s the name in his obituary. It’s the name that was broadcast on television during the news segment that described his car fire. It’s the name on his grave.

And it’s the name on his Facebook profile.

Bubba died over two and a half years ago, but I still remember the day I heard the news. I was sitting in my teeny little cubicle and monitoring social media mentions for the nationwide advertising company whose corporate office I called home from 9 to 5.

My husband (then boyfriend) called me on my cell phone. I answered the phone quickly and told him, in a hushed voice, that I wasn’t supposed to be on the phone at work. But he continued.

“I have some bad news,” he said. “Bubba died last night.”

What? What?

I was in shock. What? No. Bubba couldn’t have died. He’d just posted something on Facebook. What? No.

My boyfriend said he had to hang up because someone else was calling him, with more information, and he had to take the call.

I sat there, dumbfounded, in front of my little social media monitoring station. By default, I had both Facebook and Twitter already pulled up. I hopped right on Facebook, typed in Bubba’s full name, and saw that he’d updated his status late last night. He said he was “watching The Wrestler and loving it”.

My 25-year-old friend can’t be dead. He just watched a movie. People who just watched a movie and posted about it on Facebook can’t die. No. No no no no no.

Facebook is all about youth and vitality and living and sharing. Facebook is the antithesis of death!

But the second call did come: Bubba died in a car fire in the early hours of the morning.


Mourning used to go something like this: you find out that a friend has died. You express disbelief, maybe call a few friends, and make plans to attend the wake and/or funeral. Perhaps you attend the burial and say goodbye at the grave site. Then, you go home and…and then what? Well, if you were still struggling with the news, maybe you called a friend. Maybe you journaled about your feelings or your memories of the deceased.

But now, enter Facebook and its close cousins. Back in March of this year, Technorati reported that there are already over 30 million dead people with Facebook profiles. Can you imagine how that number will skyrocket over the next 10 years?

Social media adds an entirely new dimension to the mourning process. Facebook is a great social utility, but how does its utility change after a profile-owning friend passes away?

We’ll take a look at the good — and the bad — in the next couple of posts.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Nikki Lyn