By Rachel Leland
For grieving relatives and friends, social media has revolutionized the way deaths are understood. According to a study done by Entrustet, an online service that allows users to transfer files and accounts to heirs, millions of Facebook users die each year and leave behind active accounts.
When a social media user who dies leaves behind a wealth of data, those who grieve can instantly access to the deceased’s comments, pictures and online life.
Baylor’s Dr. Candi Cann, assistant professor of Religion in the Honors College, aims to understand how the apps and services we use daily change the grieving process. A frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, Cann writes on topics ranging from selfie etiquette at funerals to when the appropriate time is to announce a death on Twitter.
While Cann believes that social media can play a democratizing role in the way individuals and communities grieve, she said recent events alerted her to the negative role social media can play during the grieving process.
This past February, the Wall Street Journal tweeted about the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, an actor, on Twitter. Because of the ability for information to spread quickly on the social media site, millions of users learned about the actor’s death before his family members.
“I think people who see themselves as primary grievers are no longer given that status,” Cann said. Because information on social media is equally accessible to all, a distant colleague can view content as often and as long as a grieving spouse or parent.
An anonymous Baylor student said she understood this dilemma when a colleague passed away in high school. Many friends and acquaintances posted on the deceased student’s Facebook wall to express their sorrow.
“There were posts from people we know that didn’t have a close relationship with him at all,” the student said. “The way they posted made it sound like they were his best friend when I and other people knew that wasn’t the case.”
Houston sophomore Constance Atton grew uncomfortable when her ex-boyfriend passed away and people began competing for attention on his Facebook wall. “People already in general want attention on social media, so especially when someone passes, they see that as an opportunity,” Atton said.
Indeed, many who did not know the deceased well are now given previously unobtainable access to what Cann calls a visual diary. She cites one emerging trend, which is to set a picture of oneself with the deceased as the default.
Though less common, some grievers take selfies with the deceased if the funeral is open-casket. While taking pictures with the body of a loved one who has passed is hardly novel, sharing the photo with millions of strangers is a possibility our ancestors never had.
Cann said she initially questioned the idea of snapping a selfie with a dead body. “At first a funeral selfie repulsed me, but my daughter had surgery and the first thing she asked me to do was take a picture of her” she said.
For millennials, it seems documenting extremely sensitive and personal stories on social media is far from being out of taste.