Facebook and Death: Virtual Grief

Minutes after news broke that the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen was dead, a suicide at age 40, the prayers and condolences started pouring in. More than 80,000 people became "fans" of McQueen on Facebook in the first week. In the first day, messages (to the man or his memory—it's hard to know which) were being posted every second. Brief and wrenching, the messages are tiny mosaic tiles of grief: "RIP." "Genius." "It's been 5 days, I actually miss you as tho I knew you…sleep well."

This is how we collectively mourn: Globally. Together. Online.

The McQueen phenomenon recalls the piles of plastic-wrapped flowers laid at the stoop of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s apartment after his death, but Facebook hosts the shrines of less celebrated souls as well. One teenager started a tribute page for her murdered best friend: members are invited to write the dead girl's favorite song lyric—"Keep -Breathing"—on their wrist, take a picture, and post it. In October, Facebook changed its policy regarding the pages of members who have passed away. Responding in part to urging by people at Virginia Tech who wanted after the 2007 shooting there to continue to commune with their lost friends on Facebook, the company now allows a person's page to remain active in perpetuity. (Family members may request that a loved one's page be taken down.) "When someone leaves us, they don't leave our memories or our social network," the new policy says.

One might imagine such virtual mourning is shallow, but it's not. Here is a real gathering place, where friends can grieve together—and where the deceased continues, in some sense, to exist. "You're creating something like a tombstone, but people can visit that tombstone anytime, anyplace, as long as they have Internet access," says Brian McLaren, a leader in the emerging church movement and author of A New Kind of Christianity. "That seems to me to be a great gain."

We live in a disjointed time. Many of us reside far from our families and have grown indifferent to the habits of organized religion. More of us—16 percent—declare ourselves "unaffiliated" with any religious denomination. Half of Americans will choose cremation over burial, and if we are buried, it will often be in a huge cemetery, among strangers, far from any place we would call home.

Yet the desire to connect with each other around death and with the dead themselves is older than the Bible. The ancient Hebrews buried their family members beneath the floors of their houses, the better to keep and care for them. The Christian ideal of "the community of saints," in which the dead rest peacefully in the churchyard, as much a part of the congregation as those singing in the nave, is something any 19th-century churchgoer would have instinctively understood. In the absence of that literal proximity, Facebook "keeps the person in the communal space—the way a churchyard would," says Noreen Herzfeld, professor of science and religion at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

All of which raises tantalizing questions: the average Facebook user has aged to 33 years old. In two generations, will the pages of the dead outnumber the living? Will our unchurched children be content to memorialize us with a quip on a "wall"? Something is gained, but what is lost in this evolution from corporeal grief (the rending of garments) to grief tagged with a virtual rose?

Grief is a crucible, a physical event—and death, the loss of a physical body. Thomas Lynch, the poet, undertaker, and, as author of The Undertaking, chronicler of American views of death, mused in a phone call that folks today don't like to think about permanence: they are more concerned with "whether the pipes or the doves or the balloon release will go off as scheduled." Facebook memorials are fine, even good, he agrees. But then he invokes the Wallace Stevens poem "Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself," in which a man, upon waking, hears the first bird of spring—something more than a long-held hope. In "Catch and Release," the first story in his new collection, Apparition and Late Fictions, Lynch writes about a fishing guide's efforts to dispose of the ashes of his dead father in the rivers of northern Michigan. The story is dense with -physicality—the heaviness of water, the fatness of fish, the crystalline dryness of cremated bones. It is hard to imagine Facebook muting the anguish of this mortal loss. Facebook is the idea about the thing. Celebration, desolation—that's the thing itself.

Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor. Her book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife is due out from Harper in March.