People die, but Facebook profiles do not. A convincingly crafted electronic representation of every Facebook user remains. This page has no agency—it does not update its status to let its friends know that its user has passed away. It does not post a sincere goodbye to the Facebook pages of its user’s friends and family. With the lack of a user, the nature of the Facebook profile changes fundamentally. It becomes a memorial board for collecting pictures of the deceased, it becomes a platform for eulogy, it becomes a gravestone only as permanent as Facebook itself. It is a bastardization of the traditional funeral.
A person very close to me passed away recently, and when I received the news on the phone from my parents, the only instruction I received was simple. I could not tell anybody for fear that others close to my friend would find out on Facebook—in itself a troubling concept. I checked my friend’s unchanged Facebook page in the hours following, and what I experienced can only be described as hollow. About six hours following, the first posts came in, and the floodgates opened. At one moment, barely anybody knew, and at the next moment, everybody did. I was not sure how I would feel when I read the Facebook posts, but once I saw them, they greatly bothered me.
The posts did not bother me because they were mean—every one of them was kind. I am certain that every person posting had the best intentions. They bothered me because they were impersonal; if souls go anywhere, they certainly do not go to rest in a Facebook page. They bothered me because they reminded me constantly of what hurt the most. They bothered me because I knew another person that was bothered by them, and therefore knew that I was not just looking for something to dislike. Some people took it upon themselves to craft posts, hundreds of words long, examining the nature of life and death, and that incensed me. It quickly became apparent what the problem was with all these Facebook posts.
The contents of most posts, if spoken at a memorial, would be entirely appropriate. There is a time and a place for eulogy, but in public on Facebook is neither the time nor the place. In most cultures that I know of, etiquette exists in its strictest form when it pertains to grieving. Funerals are so tightly controlled by etiquette that attendees sit, stand, kneel, and speak exactly when they are told to do so. A quick look at the obituary section of a newspaper shows an unwavering adherence to minimalist form. That’s what the Facebook posts really are—electronic personalized obituaries for everybody to see. I can’t pretend to know exactly how or why grieving etiquette came to be, but I believe it follows the fundamental nature of etiquette. Etiquette exists, I think, to prevent unnecessary, accidental, or unwanted things from happening to people. So it seems that the reason why grieving is traditionally private and structured is because it prevents mourners from experiencing any additional hurt. The public nature of Facebook violates this maxim.
The primary point of hesitation for me was that so many people did choose to go to Facebook to make these posts. Clearly, I exist in the minority, whereas the vast majority gains something positive from recording their memories on Facebook. There is no existing etiquette for Facebook profiles of the deceased, so I don’t condemn those who did post on my friend’s page. But I do think that an etiquette needs to be established in order to prevent others in the future from experiencing their loved one’s profile in such a negative way. People have been finding ways to cope with grief without the advent of social media for thousands of years, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the injured minority to expect the majority to continue doing so. Besides, a world where funerals become electronic forums is a world best avoided.