Peaches Geldof's death caused ripples on social media. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on mourning in the digital age: Selfies at funerals and memorial hashtags

There is nothing we can do to make normal or “appropriate” the death of a dear friend, or a beloved public figure.

How do we deal with death in the digital age? In recent weeks and months, social media has been unremittingly macabre, reacting to the passing of artists, public figures and political heroes. Lou Reed. Nelson Mandela. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Bob Crow. Tony Benn. Sue Townsend. Most recently, 25-year-old journalist and socialite Peaches Geldof was found dead in her home, and after everyone from Boy George to the Irish prime minister tweeted their condolences, the commentariat queued up to ask - had the "frenzy" of digital mourning gone too far? Was the handwringing just unscrupulous new media "cashing in" on tragedy? 

Memorial hashtags, selfies at funerals, maudlin Facebook memorial pages, orchestrated mobs of mourning for the latest celebrity to die young. The consensus amongst the self-designated guardians of cultural standards is that internet grief has become monstrously inappropriate, an insult to propriety. In fact, what is monstrous is not the awkward intersection of modern media and public mourning. What is monstrous is the fact that twenty-five-year-olds die before their time. What is inappropriate is the fact that brave activists and beloved writers continue to age,sicken and die right when we need their wisdom and courage more than ever. It is not social media that makes these deaths shocking. Death itself is shocking, and remains so in every medium. As Judith Butler wrote in Violence, Mourning, Politics: “What grief displays is the thrall in which our relations with others holds us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain . . . Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

There is nothing particularly new about "excessive public mourning". Some commentators seem to be labouring under the impression that there was once a time when the gutter press respected the dead, that the very earliest pamphleteers did not feed off gruesome murders, public executions and the cooling bodies of tragic socialites. As the age of mass-media dawned, melodramatic mourning for public figures, from Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to John Kennedy, became a stock part of the sales plan. And if you think Twitter is macabre, consider the fact that the mainstream media obituaries for most of the famous people who are due to pass away in the next decade have already been written. I was recently contacted by a television studio with a request to record a tribute to a member of the royal family who is seemingly still in good health.

One morning last September, I got a phone call telling me that our dad had had a heart attack and was in a coma. On the way to the hospital, I tweeted that my father was seriously ill and I was rushing to see him. Several internet denizens replied that I should be ashamed of "capitalising" on what had happened. Rage ran through me like a blade. What gave these people the right to tell me how to express grief and shock? What gave anyone that right? I was so caught up that I neglected to change out of the T-Shirt I was wearing, which happened to have a giant grinning skull on it - which actually was inappropriate attire for an intensive care unit.

When dad’s life support was withdrawn several days later, my sisters and I sat down to decide what to say on social media, because it felt like we had to say something. Eventually we settled on a short, sad message all of us could use. It was one of the most difficult parts of the most difficult week of our lives: for everything else, there was a set way of doing things, relatives to call, forms to fill in, decisions to be made to a schedule. But with this, we were on our own. Part of us wanted to say nothing. But when singer Lou Reed passed away a few weeks later, amid the tidal wave of popular sentiment, the Twitter storms and tributes, I found myself irrationally cross that the internet was not mourning my lovely but objectively unfamous father with the same zeal. Where were the hashtags?

There are no rules for what to do online when someone dies, but plenty of opportunity for instant reactions and awkward status updates. The dead, however, are beyond caring whether somebody makes a gaffe on Twitter. Public mourning is for those left behind. When it comes to the rightness and fitness of the rituals, there is only one question that really matters, and it is this - is enough being done to support the family and friends of the person who has died? Everything else is secondary to that. What was truly disgraceful in the days after Peaches Geldof’s death was not the hundreds of thousands of strangers who had never met the young journalist and socialite tweeting what some called ‘shallow grief’, but the snooty comment pieces opining that she really wasn’t worth all the fuss. 

Spiked Editor and professional heartless contrarian Brendan O’Neill asked his readers “just what were the achievements of this young woman everyone was suddenly weeping for? She wore clothes, that’s one thing.” O’Neill deemed this a "pressing question". It was not a pressing question. It was a cruel and degrading question next to which the reported 370,000 tweets about Geldof in the hours after her death was announced seem positively respectful.

We live in interesting times, times of weird technology and easy outrage, but death is still the weirdest and most outrageous thing of all. There is nothing we can do to make normal or "appropriate" the death of a dear friend, or a beloved public figure, or a young person who should have had years of fun and growing up still to live. Death itself is deeply inappropriate. It is crass and comes too soon. When it does, leaving the rest of us at our most awkwardly, awfully human, all we can do is be as kind to each other as possible.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.