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