Thursday, February 20, 2014

Death Becomes Us

I'm a huge fan of Caleb Wilde's writing on funerals and death, and I even read his site for fun, but I think he's gotten the wrong end of the stick here in this little post about funeral selfies. Apparently people are taking pictures at funerals, sometimes even of themselves with the corpse, or clowning around with the coffin, or with other mourners. They are even posting them up on social media. Caleb begins well with the rather obvious historical point that images of the deceased,and images of the mourners, are nothing new:
There’s a long history of funeral photography. Heck, I think there’s a one million year old photo of a dead Homo erectus floating around the internet. There may even be one of dead Jesus somewhere on Reddit. And there are certainly thousands of “odd” and “creepy” post-mortem photographs from the Victorian era. But, unlike the cadaver selfie or the boneheaded military photo, funeral photography is usually motivated by some kind of love. Intent is part of the issue when talking about funerals and photography, etc. Why do it? What’s the motivation? And although the motivation isn’t always clear, it is clear most take these photos as a token of remembrance. A token of love.
But he winds up asserting that these pictures, now, by these people are not obvious evidence of exactly the same thing--rememberance, love, but rather take place in an entirely new context, a context he calls "fragmentation" resulting from our "mosaic" and "quilt" like lives.
“But isn’t the selfie – by definition – an act of narcissism?” you ask. At first glance, yes. Selfies would seem like the epitome of narcissism, and indeed many are self-serving. But many (most) – especially the ones taken by those who find themselves in the emerging culture of social media – funeral selfies are about both belonging and identity. Emerging culture has moved from the neatly defined groups/tribes of pluralism to the blending of fragmentation. We are like quilts. We’re like mosaics. With fragmentation, the social rules that come with the strictly defined boundaries of pluralism become less and less important. With fragmentation, belonging and identity become of prime importance. Belonging and identity is decorum. Social media is how many of us relate to the world. And the selfie plays a part in that relationship. It is a way of saying “this is where I am at. This is what I’m doing. This is who I am. These are my stupid duck lips.” And the funeral selfie is how we say, “This part of my community has died and I just wanted to let you know.” In the minds of many, taking a selfie with the deceased is right because it’s about expressing a connection to the deceased and wanting to share that connection with others. It’s about identity and belonging.
I think that is just an incredibly weird way of looking at what people are doing. Its not because they are fragmented, or society is fragmented, or they are patching together a self in a mosaic. Or they are violating some kind of funeral decorum. They are simply doing what they have always done at funerals: experiencing them as social events, showing themselves to the community, being with their peers and friends, waking the dead, taking pictures or mementoes of the relationship (even gruesome ones like locks of hair or, in some cultures, actual body parts) and then hanging on to those mementoes (hair jewelry, for example, or bones themselves) and displaying them or ritually inspecting them.

 Funeral photos are a late addition to the practice of looking at, holding, touching and interacting with the body and a novel way of taking a memento from the body.     Funeral Photos, and specifically photos of dead people in their coffins, were an early way to display wealth, to solemnize an already solemn occasion, and to offer comfort and a last view to family members who were too far away to attend the funeral. Often those pictures, along with wedding pictures, might be the only mementoes people would have of their loved ones. (The Selfie, by the way, is something that people can take away from the funeral that includes themselves, so its a record of their presence there. It is also the obverse of the gifts and tokens that people have always left in the grave with their loved ones--people routinely leave pictures, gifts, and letters right in the coffin with the dead and this is not considered tacky or problematic at all.)

 How and why are "selfies" except for the unfortunate name any different from any other funeral ritual? Even solemnity and privacy are not typical of many funeral and memorial styles--drunken wakes are, of course, quite legendary as celebrations. Different people, at different stages of their life cycle, and with different support from the community are going to experience different kinds of deaths as more traumatic or less traumatic, they are going to express their loss in a more dark or a more lighthearted way. Its true that selfies are associated with younger people and the new technology of the iPhone and social media spaces like Facebook (already old) and twitter or instagram but thats just an accident really--people already left funerals and wrote about them, or took pictures or mementoes and discussed them at later private memorials and celebrations.

  Several years ago some funeral homes instituted drive up "viewings" of corpses via video hookup for distant family members who wanted to pay their respects but couldn't get to the funeral home during open hours. Coming from a culture which does not favor viewing the body at all this strikes me as both weird and tacky but, of course, its not. Its just a natural extension of the mourner's needs and expectations meeting up, more or less happily, with modern technology.

 I think we might also consider the ways that cemetery location and a highly transient, mobile, population plays into the need people have to have a tiny memento on their phones to take away with them. Cemeteries are no longer small and local and people's friend and family groups--especially their teenage friends who are likely to be geographically scattered after school, or their military friends who are likely to be from many different locations--are likely to get together only at the funeral, and then never be in a position to come back to the gravesite again.  This has led to the rise of cremation as a popular choice because the ashes can be split among several relatives or members of different sub families. In this way the deceased him or herself can accompany the mourner. But obviously most subsidiary friends and family are not going to be given a handful of the literal dust to take home so a selfie seems to me to be entirely in keeping with the noted human propensity to take souvenirs.

ETA to add that nothing is tacky when it comes to death. Via First Draft

New Orleans Saints fans are hardcore. Some of them want to take their fanatical Who Dattery with them when they die:
If the Saints get their way, you won’t be caught dead in the latest piece of fan gear.
A custom casket seller with an unusual storefront in the Esplanade Mall is under fire from the team over his $3,000 “Who Dat?” model casket, a black-finished steel coffin fitted with a gold satin pillow and fleur-de-lis decals.
Jonathan Lahatte, a former Orleans Parish sheriff’s deputy who opened his ’Til We Meet Again shop last fall, says he has no plans to slip away gently.
“You can be a diehard Who Dat all your life. What better way to celebrate it than be buried with it for all eternity?” Lahatte said from his store in a back corner of the mall, behind Great American Cookies. “Right now I believe I’m not doing anything illegal, so I’m going to keep it the way it is.”


  1. So, this is a post about some things people do that some other people say are creepy but that probably aren't meant to be. So I hope you won't take it the wrong way when I (aka Gregor Sansa, aka ) invite you to a party to welcome my wife to the US and to Cambridge. It's tomorrow, Saturday Feb 12, 6-10 PM, at 412 Norfolk St Apt. 2.

    (Anybody else who reads this blog is also welcome to come. No bots or trolls though, please. And if somehow you're reading from the deep future, and using the impressive power of future-google to stalk me and send a time travelling killer robot against my daughter, the robot itself would be covered by the "no bots" rule, but you yourself are welcome to the party, because planetary artificial intelligences do not count as bots.)

    1. Tag fail. My second aka is [Irish whisky] [Dr. X, medicine woman].