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How should we mourn in the internet age?

Ghosts in the machine.

How many people live in your house? According to a Reykjavik tour guide, the population stats in Iceland could be exaggerated by about 10 per cent, as many inhabitants count ghosts. I rather like the idea of such ease with death at close quarters. Death has pulled up a chair at the hearth, poured an Egils Pilsner and tucked in to the puffin stew.

On our islet, however, death doesn’t really get a look-in. The birth end we’ve got covered: you can read the literature, take a class, join Mumsnet. We can’t get enough. There’s practically a live link to the Duchess of Cambridge’s reproductive organs –UterineTube, perhaps. We will talk and chat and tweet incontinently about sex, politics, the Kardashians, weddings and onesies. The only thing that is not done to death is death.

So, it is all the more shocking and somehow indecorous when, in middle age, the preceding generation dies. We are spectacularly unprepared for the entirely inevitable. And, man, did death have a purple patch recently among my cohort. Death went to work like there was no tomorrow.

We tend, I suppose, to deselect and ignore what’s not relevant to us and, exaggeratedly, to foreground what is; we walk around in a world of our own making. Only when freshly bereaved was I calibrated to see undertakers. Who knew that there was one on the high street, right next to the chemist and the estate agents?

Britain has jettisoned the Victorian dress codes for mourners so they, too, are largely invisible. We don’t hold with the public flamboyance of a New Orleans funeral or with Shinto shrines to our ancestors.

Yet private grief is changing its profile in the digital age. A bereavement psychologist by the name of Elaine Kasket (oh now, shush!) compares Facebook to “a modern-day medium”. Friends and family can continue to “connect” with the one they loved, continue to post and share, though the new txtspk of grief – “Miss you sooo much :-(( ” – takes a bit of getting used to.

In the absence of religious beliefs and observances, some are embracing the notion of a digital afterlife. The cloud is the new heaven. It might just be a question of buying “death-switch” software that sends out post-mortem emails to contacts.

Or you can even upload your “mind” to an avatar that will continue to interact with the world once you’ve well and truly 404-ed it. An outfit called Virtual Eternity calls these creations “intellitars”, although, having met a few of them online, I’d hate to be stuck at a party with one of these stupitars.

Religion’s dream of immortality is simply replaced by something secular, cyber and crasser. It’s surely better to unplug from the matrix, to take long walks in the country, to see and feel the life cycle of the seasons. Tread on the loam of our composted forebears.

Good grief – gives your ghosts a bit of fresh air.


This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius