Facebook, death and memorialisation

By Daniel Miller, on 13 March 2014

Photo by Rosie O’Beirne (Creative Commons)

Alongside my ethnographic research in The Glades I have now been working for over a year alongside The Hospice of St Francis. When I am in the UK I try to spend a day a week interviewing their patients who are mainly terminal cancer patients. I was delighted to hear this winter that the wonderful hospice director Dr Ros Taylor was awarded an MBE in this year’s honours list. My intention in working for the Hospice was a concern that a project of this size should also have an applied or welfare aspect where we could see the direct benefit. The initial work was simply an attempt to see how the hospice could benefit from new media. The report was published on my website, but once I was working with them I realised that in a way the hospice was the clearest example of what the whole team have endeavoured to demonstrate through this blog.

The hospice movement represents no kind of technical or medical advancement. It is entirely the product of a transformation in collective consciousness. Previously it was assumed that when people knew they were dying this was tantamount to a stage in merely their withdrawal from the world. We talk about ‘investing in our children’ as though there were long-term financial assets. The same logic would condemn the dying as of limited value. The Hospice movement was all about saying that knowing someone is terminal should be seen as an opportunity. It is no longer a medical issue, they will not be cured, instead we can concentrate on their quality of life and make this stage of life, since that is what it is, as enjoyable and fulfilling as it could be. Everything that Dr Taylor says and does demonstrates this, as does my colleague in this research Kimberley McLaughlin a senior manager of the hospice.

On reflection this is perhaps our single most important finding also as anthropologists of social media. People become fixated on the technological advances of new media. What each device can now be capable of – the latest app or smartphone or platform. These certainly feature throughout our work. But the vast majority of our blog posts are not about that. Instead they describe changes in the same collective consciousness: the social uses that people creatively imagine for these media as part of their lives.

The two issues come together in my observations of Facebook in relation to death and memorialisation. One of my early informants was a woman who felt that she wanted to use the experience of terminal cancer to help educate the wider world about her experience. A subject people tend to avoid but need to gain a better understanding of. I last saw her six days before she died and she was quite clear that using Facebook as almost a daily blog had enabled her to do just that. I am hoping (if I obtain the funding) to make a film based on her and other patients who have used Facebook in this manner.

I would be equally positive about the ways people have found to use Facebook in memorialisation and grief. Previously we have tended to use highly formal and religious institutionalised frames for dealing with death. As I argued in my book Tales From Facebook, this was out of synch with changes in our notion of the authenticity of the individual. Where once we took formal posed pictures, now we like to capture images that seem spontaneous, informal and thereby more ‘real’ to us. Similarly we needed a form of memorialisation that contained this element of personalisation and immediacy. People on Facebook can put both serious and jokey memories and do so at a time of their choosing. I find these sites poignant and effective. I don’t find other social media sites, such as Twitter or Instagram, as having the same potential, so I hope we retain this capacity of Facebook.

But the point is that the inventors of Facebook were certainly not thinking about its relationship to death or memorialisation. Rather, as in the case of the invention of the hospice movement, this reflects a change in our collective imagination in what we could potentially do in relation to death and grief. This is why we argue it is anthropology rather than more tech-driven studies of new media that are most suited to understanding what social media actually become. Most of these reports reflect not the technological potential, but the imaginative realisation of social media.

Communicating death in an Indian village

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 14 August 2013

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Communicating the occurence of a life event to one’s social group (relatives, friends, colleagues etc.) is something that is seen in most societies around the world. However, the patterns and processes of communicating such events differ between societies. It is not a rarity to find extensive use of Facebook and other social networking sites as major platforms to communicate major life events such as the birth of a child, birthdays (where now reminders from the social networking sites now help to prompt the sending of messages), wedding anniversaries, deaths and so on. Exploring instances of how life events such as news of the death of a close relative or someone important are communicated becomes very interesting and given that one of the areas of focus for the project is to also explore death and memorialization, it definitely becomes an area worth observing.

The death of one of my informant’s grandfather occurred a couple of days ago, right at a time when there was a yearly religious village carnival going on in my field site. This was unexpected, though the village elder who had passed away was paralysed and had been “suffering” for almost a year now. He was 82 years old. The death was now viewed as pollution (theetu) as it had happened right in the middle of a sacred week. Further, given that a lot of money had already been spent on preparing for the celebrations, the idea was to cremate the “dead body” as soon as possible and to go on with the celebrations without cancelling any of the planned events.

Within an hour’s of the death people from at least five to six neighbouring villages and also from the closest city had gathered there to offer their respects to this village elder who had passed away. It was fascinating to see how so many people (between 1500–2000) had assembled within such a short span of time. As it was the death of the head of a lineage (Thala Kattu), the ceremony had to have all the regalia and the ceremonial and ritualistic arrangements befitting the status of the dead person and all this had to be prepared in a very short time. Normally, a dead person’s body is kept in state for at least a day or two so that everyone around the area gets a chance to come  and pay their last respects. Further, the day is also used to make arrangements for the cremation. However, this time it was different, the body had to be taken off from the area as soon as possible as it would halt the religious ceremony. What normally happens over 48 hours happened in just five to six hours. The speed at which communication worked and the news spread was something worth observing/exploring. The reason was very clearly discernible – it was use of mobile technology – cell phone at its best.

The original classical method of spreading the message of someone’s death in this village was to send people in all the four directions to convey the message to their kin in other villages and let the neighbouring village heads know of this, so people could come in to offer their last respects to the dead. Though this was still followed as a ritualistic process in order to maintain their age old practice, the urgency which the situation demanded seemed to be negotiated with the help of cell phones. It was clear that it was a mix of both voice and text that seemed to accomplish things. However, there was a clear distinction of purposes to which the use of voice and/or text was assigned. Communicating the news of death in person to the very senior elderly people and the head of the villages was considered respect and was a formalized unwritten protocol and that was still followed. However, communicating the message of death to middle aged and other elderly people always ensured a voice communication through cell phones as it was once again considered respect to use one’s voice to communicate such messages while text seemed fine with the younger generation. Logistical requirements and their arrangements like flowers, fireworks etc. happened over voice communication on cell phones.

Although an unsaid prohibition of not taking pictures of the dead body was followed, it was pretty much evident that there were a few youngsters (relatives of the now dead village elder) taking pictures of the dead body on their mobile phones. A casual chat revealed that they were planning on sending picture messages to their relatives and friends who were not able to make it to the ceremony. However, they were certain that they would not put it up on their Facebook or other social networking sites as they were only interested in sending this to people to whom this mattered. Putting this news on Facebook or other SNS would be seen as insulting the dead person, in short they were trying to focus their communication to reach the target audience (though marketers use this all the time, but have more of “brand pages” which was not the case here). Further, they did joke that some of their friends would “Like” the picture post, or sometimes even send in unwanted comments and if someone from the family saw that, then it would result in unwanted issues. Further, not all their counterparts or kin used social networking sites, but they had cell phones. The events as they unfolded very clearly revealed the power of technology; however, they also revealed that constant negotiation with the type of technology to use, the purpose of using them and how they were used even during a single event differed widely.

There was an urge to understand if such communication during death worked the same way when telephones found a place in this society too. The idea that communication of a message of death might have changed first when telephones came in which in a way is a gradual process of upgrading from manual news carriers to telephones and then to cell phones is something that most think as being true, as these steps seem to be the logical order. However, very soon it was revealed that most of them in the village here never had a telephone, as telephones (specifically from the government) were pretty hard to secure and their names in the waiting list seemed to have a permanent fixed position, thereby ensuring that most households in the village never had a telephone. The process was a movement from manual carriers directly to cell phones, bypassing the era of telephones. So how did they communicate messages of death to their social circle living in far off places? –  Telegrams. They came in very handy when telephones were not available to the common masses as cell phones are now spread out.

Telegraps were the text messages and forerunner of the today’s text messaging. Telegraphs did have their own lingo as the messages now do, as charges incurred depended on the number of words. It was called “Thandhi” in Tamil. Most villages/small towns in India, as in my fieldsite did associate “Thandhi” with death. They assumed that such urgent messages meant the death of someone they knew, though telegraphic services did carry countless other messages too. But, it was symbolically associated with the announcement of death. This was prevalent in my fieldsite too. However, last month the Indian Telegraphic Service closed shop after 162 years and the idea of symbolically associating it to death had its death then.

Why start with death?

By Daniel Miller, on 8 October 2012

Holding the hand of an elderly person

Photo: Rosie O'Beirne (Creative Commons)

Even I would have to admit it wasn’t the obvious way to go. The last three weeks have been amazing with the whole group coming together, but I have been on this project since May and during the intervening period I went ahead with my own fieldwork. Eventually all eight of us will start on our respective ethnographies with hopefully strong common threads. But we have agreed that there will also be some degree of autonomy in which we each have some themes of our own, something probably essential in a discipline such as anthropology.

So in May I decided that my own theme would be to start my study in collaboration with a hospice. This was possibly a very stupid move since our project is centred upon the consequences of social networking sites, and the one group who are least likely to be using this sites are the elderly who, in turn, make up the majority of those who are terminally ill. So why work with a hospice? I guess there were three reasons. The first was that for such a large grant from the public purse I felt that ethics is not just written consent forms, ethics is also whether your research directly benefits the welfare of populations who, in some sense, are paying for it. As it happens, the hospice director was interested in the likely long-term impact of new media and had asked if I could work with them. The health service has been incredibly conservative on this front, the NHS is still mostly based on fax and letters, so this seemed potentially a useful contribution.

The second was that I felt a project this big should address the big picture of anthropology, and not just our parochial ethnographies, and that, for theoretical reasons, I wanted to rethink what we understand by life as enhanced by technology and that this might be understood better in relation to the imminence of death. The third reason was that most researchers studying things like social network sites will simply focus on those alone, while for anthropology everything is context. Getting a real sense of the wider world of communications and social relations from non-users would ensure that we kept that broad context in view when it came to working on social networking sites specifically.

It’s too early to know if any of these were right, but one thing I can say, is that you would not expect that a project based largely with terminal cancer patients would be anything other than downbeat. But I have found that these patients are genuinely happy to find someone who wants to talk about something other than illness and is asking for their advice and life stories and that actually the fieldwork so far has been really uplifting and often surprisingly enjoyable.