Death in Cyberspace
Funeral and mourning practices on the internet
dr. Albert Benschop
translation: Connie Menting
Every year nearly 140,000 people die in the Netherlands. They die of old age, illness or accidents. Every deceased person has an average of five surviving relatives. This implies that every year almost 680,000 people have to cope with a loss. Because of the increase of the ageing population the number of deaths will grow strongly in the years to come. The Dutch Central Statistical Office (CBS) expects that by the year 2005 148,000 persons will die each year and in 2010 158,000. In 25 years 225,000 persons will die each year. When one person's life ends irreversibly, it is the beginning of a period of deep mourning for the survivors, in which they try to deal with the loss of their loved one, friend, parent or child.
The use of the internet penetrates all aspects of our social life. This does not only change the way in which we work, learn and play with one another 'from a distance', but also the way in which we have contact in intimate and ultimate events such as love and death. How does the use of the internet change our funeral rituals and how does it affect our ways of coping with death?
- Is a virtual life possible after death?
- Do new funeral rituals arise by the use of the internet?
- To what extent is the internet a medium for the survivors to deal with sorrow?
"How long does a human being live?|
One thousand years or just one?
Is it a week or ages?
How long does death last?
What does it mean: forever?
People are mortal. The bodies in which we live our real existence simply have a restricted life span. Ultimately we all die of old age, or sooner of an illness or accident. The relatives mourn over the definitive departure of their loved one, their friend, child, parents. And mostly they find this extremely difficult. More and more people explicitly look for a personal way to cope with the loss of a dear one and to cope with mourning. Nowadays our North-European civilization permits us to express the feeling of dismay, of loss, of sorrow. It is allowed to express and get over the sadness about what was and will never return - in one's own way.
Mourning is one of the most difficult challenges of life.
"You have to face up with your loss and learn to continue living. While at the same time you rather wanted your loved one, friend, son or daughter, father or mother, to be still alive. That is why we want to remember our deceased so badly. And preferably to show everyone in the world what a fantastic person we will miss" [Gids na een overlijden].
The question is to what extent the internet can be used as a medium to make coping with mourning easier. The internet can be used in three ways:
- to involve all survivors in the organization of the funeral ceremony: virtual funeral services.
- to keep the memory of a loved one alive: virtual graves.
- to cope with the loss together with fellow-sufferers: virtual mourning groups.
We take death extremely seriously and our funeral rites are by nature rather conservative. Several factors contribute to the lack of change in our funeral rites: our belief in life after death and in the relationship between the living and the dead, the desire to honour and remember the deceased in a respectful manner, the great mystery and the fear with which the unknown is surrounded, and last but not least the dramatic disorder and deep sorrow caused by the death of someone in our direct environment. Therefore it is striking that at present the funeral rites change so fast in many countries. These funeral rites become more personal, informal, secular and inclusive. In the virtual world of the internet these changes succinctly emerge.
A virtual grave
You can't live forever!|
The question is whether you can stay dead forever.
At present many people live two lives. One in the real, physical world and the other in the virtual world created by the internet. The worldwide network of computers called the internet has grown explosively in the last few years. Tens of millions of people make use of the internet. They use it to exchange messages (email), to talk with each other by typing on their keyboards, and also to publish words, images, sounds and video clips on the World Wide Web. Everyone can place information on the WWW and once placed there it can be viewed from the remotest corner of the world.
The internet should be taken seriously as a medium. Hundreds of millions of documents are already on the internet and every day one million pages are added to it. Moreover, the internet has introduced another novelty: the virtual communities. People living far away from one another can meet regularly via the internet. Thus new connections arise between colleagues working in the same domain or between persons with the same interests or hobbies. Also, new friendships are brought about, and even romances.
People who are online for their work or for fun increasingly wonder what it means to die online: why shouldn't you create a virtual place for deceased loved ones or for yourself after you have left the real and virtual world? There are many reasons why people want to create online memorial sites and virtual graveyards. A memorial site in the real physical world can be very beautiful, but it can only be at one place at the same time. An online memorial site can be visited by anyone with a computer and internetconnection. The internet is an ideal place to announce the loss of someone we cherish and to erect a permanent memorial sign in memory of the dead person.
Survivors feel the urge to make death public. This is usually done by way of an obituary in a newspaper, the compilation of a memorial book, and by erecting a tombstone. It is a way to keep the memory of the deceased alive. The internet offers some additional possibilities and alternatives.
Survivors may publish a memorial page on the internet. They can do so individually, or make use of specialized sites in this field. In The Netherlands, for instance, there is the Gedenkboek. The advantage of a digital memorial page is that one is not restricted to text only. You can place photos on a digital page, play music and a video and start a condolence register. Thus the internet is the medium by which you can announce a loss. It also offers the possibility to reach the people who cannot be present at the funeral. They can watch or listen to the memorial service via het internet. They still have a chance to sign the condolence register by email or show their compassion some way or other.
At the death of a beloved many people fantasize that the deceased finds a place somewhere on a little cloud, watching the survivors. Via the internet this phantasy can be more or less acted out. With a personal memorial page, the deceased actually floats through space, even if it is cyberspace:
"Lisa, darling, beautiful woman. Dead for a year now. Now everybody can look at you, read about you, listen to you. Forever, on your own little cloud."
[Frank Bokern, who made a memorial page for his girlfriend Lisa van Loo]
Virtual memorial places go beyond the borders of 'modern' societies in which death is separated from daily life banishing the dead to institutional (usually religious) enclaves, usually strongly determined by obsolete premodern rituals. The expected large spreading of virtual memorial places meets a number of growing social-cultural trends [Leimer 1996
, Geser 1998
The need to be eternally reminded as a special individual with specific qualities and merits, and not simply as a member of a clan or a religious group or community. New funeral ceremonies have come up where music is played or poems are read that the deceased loved, and in which speeches of intimate friends are at the centre.
Memorial services have increasingly become participating events during which relatives and friends tell stories about the dead person, read poems and play their favourite music.
In memorial services less emphasis is laid on formal rules and dress code. The survivors get more opportunity to share and discuss their memories of the deceased.
Formerly funerals were mainly directed in and by religious institutions. At present funerals more often take place in secular locations, without religious ministers, religiours services, music and symbols.
Ceremonies and memorial services are nowadays more inclusive than a few decades ago. Traditionally the extent of participation and period of mourning were prescribed by the degree of kinship with the deceased. At present the circle of participants and mourners is less exclusive. Since people have started to live a bit more flexible they often have a more diverse, dispersed network of relatives, friends and acquaintances.
All these developments have contributed to a more personal, active, informal, secular and inclusive funeral culture. The internet penetrates the grave and is increasingly used to support survivors in coping the loss of their loved ones. But reversely the grave also seems to penetrate the internet more and more.
Journalist Toine Heijmans of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant came across a striking tombstone at a small graveyard of the St. Petrus church in Amsterdam. A tombstone without name and date, but with an internet address www.niemandisonsterfelijk.nl [www.nobodyisimmortal.nl]. The grave is still empty and the website is an empty business as well. A picture of the tombstone, a poem and two email addresses. The reason is simple: the owner of the grave and the website is not dead yet. The owner, Jaap Louisse (64), remarks:
"I'm not lying in it yet, but the tomb is completely finished, with nice tiles on the inside. It makes me feel at ease. Now I and my family know where we will be going later" [Volkskrant 12.4.2000].
Louisse bought the grave and tombstone himself and made it into an internet tomb for those who will remain behind. The tombstone and the site are closely intertwined and refer to each other. Besides, they are connected by a foundation possessing sufficient means to keep both the virtual and local grave for eighthundred years. "This way people can log-in if they want to. It may give them comfort" [Jaap Louisse]. He harbours no illusions about the hereafter and knows that, in spite of the unfathomable space of internet, he too will die some day: "I don't do it continue my life after death. I do it for the people who will walk on the gravel of the graveyard in future times. As an encouragement, for after all: nobody's immortal.
Just like in the time when the Egyptian faraos had an early start with building the pyramids in which they would find their final resting-place, the non-digibetes can start building their own virtual mausoleum via the internet, long time before their death. It costs hardly anything, one doesn't need hundreds of slaves to build them, and the webarchitect doesn't have to be walled up in the memorial site with his patron. Building virtual tombs, pyramids and mausoleums is no longer a prerequisite of kings, emperors, faraos and dictators. The democratization of death starts on the internet.
(Coping with) death reveals the most crucial social processes and cultural values of a society. In the future the virtual graveyards and memorial sites will have a more prominent position in the way in which we cope with our deceased. Virtual graveyards fulfill the same function as traditional local graveyards: they become cultural institutions that dramatically symbolize the values and norms as to what a society is or ought to be, and who her members are and what they would like to be.
Although the internet facilitates the 'democratization of death', in the end we will stand as stratified in death as in life. The segregation of the eartly graveyard in social class, etnicity and religion will be replicated in virtual mourning and memorial rituals. It has never been true that we are all equal in the face of death. The virtual 'reign of death' is a reflection of the inequal structured 'reign of the living'.
| "Life becomes transparent against the background of death" |
Richard Huntington en Peter Metcalf, Celebrations of Death [1979:2]
A virtual mourning group
|We live to love each other, |
and suddenly we sink back into the night.
When one person's life irreversibly ends, it is the starting point of a period of deep mourning for the survivors, in which they try to cope with the loss of their loved one, friend, parent or child. This sorrow is not something that wears off easily or can be cast off easily, but instead requires an active process of coming to terms with the loss. It is an often difficult and long mourning process in which one gradually adapts to the new situation, without the deceased. Many survivors need extra support in this process, and sometimes even support of a professional social worker. In this process of accepting a loss help of fellow-sufferers, people who have had the same experience, is of utmost importance. People in mourning can talk with their fellow-sufferers via the internet, as is also happening in virtual mourning groups. These groups are usually coached by professional social workers in order to prevent people from ending up in a negative spiral.
Here are some examples of on-line support groupes:
A general support network for mourning people.
- Journey of Hearts
A healing place for anyone grieving a loss.
A discussion group for people who have lost a pet.
A discussion group for people who have lost a loved one to suicide
- Survivors of Suicide (SOS)
A support group for people who have lost a loved one to suicide.
- Lamenting Sons: Fathers & Grief
Resources for bereaved fathers and discussion of issues of male grief.
- Parents of Suicides
A support group for parents who have lost a child of any age to suicide.
- The Caregiver's
A discussion group for caregivers of the dying or the chronically ill. They share their problems, frustrations and joy with each other.
- Grief Recovery On-line
A site with support and discussion groups for people who have lost a loved one. Special information for teenagers, widows and widowers, and the possibility to send a letter to heaven ('E-mail To Heaven').
An English newsgroup for women who have had a miscarriage or whose child was stillborn.
- Lieve Engeltjes ('Dear Little Angels')
A Dutch mailinglist for parents who lost their child during pregnancy or just afther birth of the child. The site contains memorial pages for the angels, a FAQ on miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and death in early childhood.
Moderator: Marijke Germeraad.
A Dutch discussion group for people who have lost their partner. With attention for themes that are taboo. Initiator: Simon Nauta.
- Loss In Multiple Birth Outreach
A discussion group for parents who have lost one or more, both or all of their children in a multiple birth situation.
- M.I.S.S ("Mothers in Sympathy and Support")
A support site for people who have experienced the death of a child.
- On-line Chat (about.com)
Supports chat with people who want to exchange experiences on mourning, death or dying.
- Widow Net
An information and self-help resource for, and by, widows and widowers.
| "Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. |
And when it does come, we no longer exist"
[Epicurus, 341 v.C. - 270 v.C.].
- Death and Dying (SocioSite)
On-line resources on dying & death, suicide & euthanasia, mourning & remembrance.
- Rituelen rond de dood (SocioSite)
On-line resources on funeral rituals, mourning services & memory signs. Includes virtual memory signs and remembrance sites.
- Dutch Memorial Sites
Een site waar mensen voor een overledene een herdenkingspagina kunnen plaatsen, met foto's, levensbeschrijving, in-memoriams, gedichten, anekdotes etc.
- Lieve Engeltjes
- Memorial Place
A place to create a monument for someone you lost. Here you have to pay for it: € 75 for 5 years.
- Ter Nagedachtenis
A free space to place a memorial.
- English Memorial Sites
A Dutch guidebooks on dying, death and mourning from the funeral branche.
A Dutch journal that informs and amuses on issues of death.
- Dood in Nederland
Nederlandse begraafplaatsen,kerkhoven en oorlogsmonumenten in tekst en beeld. Er is nog veel werk te verrichten, maar het loont al de moeite de index van begraafplaatsen te raadplegen. Hetzelfde geldt voor het overzicht van beroemde graven (Annie M.G. Schmidt!), oorlogsmonumenten en grafpoëzie.
- Riaggs online
RIAGG is een Regionaal Instituut voor Ambulante Geestelijke Gezondheidszorg. Het biedt hulp wanneer mensen geestelijke of emotionele problemen hebben, en de huisarts of de maatschappelijk werker hen niet verder kan helpen.
PTT Post heeft speciale diensten ontwikkeld om voor rouwbrieven een optimale kwaliteit te kunnen realiseren.
- Rouw en Verliesverwerking
De Stichting Uitvaart op het Internet probeert met deze site tegemoet te komen aan een toenemende vraag naar informatie over rouw en allerlei aspecten die daarmee te maken hebben.
Een uitgebreide website over sterven en stervensbegeleiding met nieuw-pastoraalwerk (betaald en alleen in Zuid-Limburg), discussie and meditaties. Redactie: Marinus Hummelen (Maastricht).
- Vereniging Ouders van een Overleden Kind (VOOK)
Een zelfhulporganisatie van ouders van een overleden kind, die begrip en medeleven willen bieden aan lotgenoten.
- Het verlies van een baby
Personal stories on the coping with the loss of a baby. The site offers information on special literature, addresses of organizations and linkt to related sites. Editors: Nicole & John Duijvestein.
A part of the Dutch 'Guide after a death' (Gids na een overlijden) of the National Grief Counselling Foundation (in Dutch: LSR). Includes a informative Uitvaart Encyclopedie. You can search in this encyclopedia:
A site where death comes to life". Companies and organizations that specialize on terminal caretaking, the funeral and post-funeral.
- Alao, A.O. / Yolles, C. / Armenta, W. 
Cybersuicide: The Internet and Suicide.
In: Am. J. Psychiarty 156(11): 1836-7.
- Bartalos, M [2008)]Speaking of Death: America’s New Sense of Mortality (Psychology, Religion and Spirituality). Publischers Inc.
- Clark, David 
The Sociology of Death: theory, culture, practice.
Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
- Despelder, Lynne Ann / Strickland, Albert Lee 
The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying.
Mayfield Publishing Company. ISBN: 155934458X.
- Feldmann, Klaus 
Tod und Gesellschaft.
Bern: Peter Lang Verlag
- Fuchs, Werner 
Todesbilder in der modernen Gesellschaft.
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag.
- Kroeber, Alfred Louis 
Disposal of the Dead.
American Antropologist 29:314ff.
- Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth 
On Death and Dying.
- Lessa, William A. 
Death customs and rites.
- Metcalf, Peter / Huntington, Richard (ed.) 
Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Rituals.
Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN: 0521423759.
- Mitford, Jessica 
The American Way of Death Revisited.
Vintage Books. ISBN: 0679771867.
- Pessiron, Sylvia 
Rouwen in zeven 'Nederlandse' culturen.
Utrecht: Seram Press.
A description of the death rituals and ceremonies in the most common cultures of the Dutch society.
- Rinpoche, Sogyal / Gaffney, Patrick / Harvey, Andrew (ed.) 
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
San Francisco: Harper. ISBN: 0062507931.
- Seale, C.  Constructing Death: The Sociology of Dying and Bereavement. Cambridge University Press.
- Swedlow, Tracy 
Virtual Gravesites Offer Places to Remember.
The New York
Times, March 8 1997.
dr. Albert Benschop
Social & Behavioral Sciences
Sociology & Anthropology
University of Amsterdam
Published: July, 2003
20th September, 2013