Death in the social era

Today marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam, whose 23,000 casualties marked the bloodiest single day in American military history. The American Experience film on Death and the Civil War (based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering) focuses on the scale of the death, and the corresponding lack of societal structures to manage death logistics and communications. It seems hard to believe but before the Civil War, there was no national cemetery system, no federally recognized system for identifying the dead, and no means of informing family members. The federal government would, by the end of the war, have constructed “a new bureaucracy of death.”

A then-emerging new technology played a part in people’s perception of death. Mathew Brady’s October 1862 photography exposition in New York shocked viewers with what was for many the first graphic photography of death. While it’s unlikely viewers in New York would have known the subjects, it brought home an understanding of the loss in a way that both augmented and circumvented newspaper accounts.

The public photography in the Brady show marked a paradigmatic change. Over the next century and a half the death business gets routinized and bureaucratized, with funeral homes, death notices, $25 caskets, and online guest books. In the late 2000s, widespread adoption of social media immeasurably quickens and widens the notification process. Like its disruptive effects in other industries, social media “debureaucratizes” death communications in a new and interesting way.

The public nature of the way we broadcast our lives through social networks today necessarily transforms how we communicate death. New technology enables us to share the mundane to an astonishing level, with applications like Instagram transforming the way we experience the mid-day meals of others. Documenting the birth and times of our babies is so ubiquitous that if you want to block those images, there’s an app for that. But there are few apps, and no established social protocols for announcing death through social media. Twitter is rife with death rumors for public figures, but what are the rights and responsibilities of next-of-kin of a regular person, suddenly deceased?

terse Wikipedia entry of “death and the Internet” tells you the facts: Gmail will pass on your email to next of kin while Yahoo declines; Facebook will, with proper documentation, allow you to create a memorial for the deceased. Last month an app called If I die launched aimed at the pre-dead — it allows people to leave video and text messages in the event of their own sudden demise. There’s a growing need, but the both the structures (what happens to email accounts?) and the practices (how do I announce a death on Facebook?) are not yet mature.

150 years after Antietam, the military’s notification teams are skilled in the delivery of bad news and corresponding support structures — but now struggle to stay ahead of social networks to inform families. Even without a sudden catalytic event of a war destroying 2% of the population to prompt the shift, social norms around online communication are forced to adapt for death as they have for life.

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