2010-03-17

Do The Dead Check Facebook?

Speculating on the condition of the deceased seems always to have been within religions' purview, and as such thanatology often has a place among scholars of religion. Over the last several months, I have experienced three deaths: that of a dear friend in November, that of my grandfather in December, and that of a schoolmate with whom I was acquainted just last week. Reflecting on these experiences and observing the behavior of others prompted me to raise a question which a friend actually came up with some time ago.


I am not a user of Facebook myself, indeed having vowed never to use it. However, I do take interest in observing the reflection and reproduction it creates of the extant social network. My teacher Professor Brashier often employs the analogy of the "relationship net" to describe ancient Chinese notions of self (usually in contrast to the western idea of the "rugged individual"), but Facebook makes it clear that the idea of people as knots on a net, defined by their connections to others, really is a perfect way to describe our society as well.

What happens when an individual described in such a collective way dies? Is a knot on the net undone?

In classical Chinese religion and philosophy, while the actual existence of ghosts and spirits was always disputed and left up in the air by many thinkers, nevertheless their practice in remembering the dead centered around the idea of reconstituting the identity of the deceased through the connections he had to others. Gathering together to make offerings, the thoughts of a person's survivors could at least temporarily put the individual back together — literally re-member him.

(As an aside, anyone interested in this particular topic or the thanatology of Han China in general should keep an eye out for Professor Brashier's forthcoming books: Lineage Memory in Early China and Public Memory in Early China.)

It seems Facebook is taking on a similar function today. Besides just setting up Facebook groups in memory of a dead user, the actual Facebook pages which belonged to those users become memorials themselves. The bereaved continue to leave comments on these pages, sometimes leaving condolences, sometimes contributing memories, and sometimes even addressing the dead directly.

The deeper implications of this phenomenon for religious studies could be quite broad. However, today my purpose is simply to point out an interesting parallel between a contemporary practice and an ancient idea. Clearly Facebook has yet to grow into a religion itself (though some adherents seem to refer to it rather religiously already), but studying how people deal with death is the business of the student of religion. I, for one, will be keeping tabs on how Facebook continues to be used to memorialize the dead.

Besides, maybe when they get wireless in the afterlife, the dead might post back.

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