Digital Tombstones and Dying Invisibly in Plain Sight

By Don Hall

By 2012, just eight years after the platform was launched, 30 million users with Facebook accounts had died. That number has only gone up since. Some estimates claim more than 10,000 users die each day.

Let that sink in for a second.

I don't know if this fact unnerves you but it sure as hell gives me a moment of pause.

There is a percentage of this 30 million plus whose family memorializes their dead on Facebook. They have access and can change the profile, take a lot of the outgoing feeds out of the picture and the thing becomes a digital tombstone. But that's a small portion. If you don't have access, you have to present a death certificate to Zuckerburg's cybernetic fiefdom and they'll grant the access, which most people in times of grieving aren't going to do. I mean, they're busy arranging a funeral and the fucking outrageous fees involved with legally putting their loved ones to rest.

My guess is that there are a solid chunk of these Facebook Ghouls who simply had no one to bother.

30 million plus. Dead. Still getting a News Feed and posts about cats and food and babies and politics. Still being sold bullshit that they didn't need in life and certainly have no use for now. Twenty-four hours a day.

This is new shit for civilization. Yes, we still have memories of our dead loved ones but a constantly available diary of our deceased friend or family member's life via bland statuses about their political beliefs, their concert experiences, their online arguments about bullshit? This seems a bit like keeping the wound of grief perpetually open. A photo album of stagnant moments is one thing and I suppose, as photography was becoming more prevalent, there may have been some older dude bemoaning the fact that these new-fangled pictures in books of our loved ones is just a way to keep our grief running like a trickling injury, but this Internet Graveyard seems somehow creepier.

Once in a while I get a comment on my old Blogspot blog as if I had just written an essay posted 11 years ago, yesterday. Most often, these comments are to tell me what an asshole I am. Those posts will still be up long after I croak (unless I die in the impending Armageddon of All Infrastructure and Energy or the Zombie Takeover of 2024), which means, at some point, someone will read a blog post of mine from years ago and call me an asshole after I'm long dead and buried. And isn't that just a little bit weird?

Not long after reading about the Facebook Mausoleum, I went to a poetry reading my wife was involved with and one of the poets read a poem he wrote inspired by Joyce Vincent.

"Joyce Carol Vincent (15 October 1965 – c. December 2003) was a British woman whose death went unnoticed for more than two years as her corpse lay undiscovered in her London bedsit. She died in her bedsit around December 2003 with neither family, friends, co-workers, nor neighbours taking notice. Her remains were discovered on January 25, 2006, with the cause of death believed to be either an asthma attack or complications from a recent peptic ulcer.  Her television was still on when they found her remains next to a stack of Christmas presents in the process of being wrapped."
Source

Connect the dots, friends.

The image of Vincent, her dead body slowly decomposing in front of the non-stop advertising, news, stories, reality TV cascading over her inert meat cage is unsettling. It makes me wonder if we aren't all just a little bit dead as we connect with the world via screens while at the same time understanding and believing in these screens as unique tools for human advancement. If you're a Luddite who believes getting out among other humans is somehow superior to social media on an iPad, you've forgotten what it's like to go to Navy Pier in the summer or to have to wait in line to piss at a Cubs game.

In the documentary about Vincent (which I rented on Amazon the night I heard the poem and my wife and I watched that night) holds no answers to the obvious questions. Her family (she was the youngest of four daughters and all of them plus her mother were still alive at the time) refused to be a part of the doc and the many friends and ex-boyfriends only had tales of how wonderful she was. No one could explain how she simply disappeared from the daily discourse of life for two years and that no one bothered to check up on her. She wasn't homeless. She was only 38 years old. She was lovely and engaged in the world. She died from an asthma attack (they think) in the midst of wrapping Christmas presents (for who?) watching the television and sat there, decaying, for two years before the landlord hired someone to break the door down because her rent was really fucking late.

I wrote a blog post (that made it into my first book) that posited the idea that each of us is really not that important in the Grand Scheme. That finding those people whom we find important and doing a Venn diagram of who in that list also find us important gives a clear picture of the people who would come over to our home and find us dead if we expired on the floor wrapping Christmas presents. Then my wife wanted me to give her a list of all of my passwords to all of my accounts in part so if I die, she can cancel those automatic renewed payments and social media accounts that would remain active if I got hit by a lightning bolt or randomly shot in my Prius driving around in Rogers Park.

I have in my Friends List a small number of people who have shuffled off the mortal coil and yet still have active Faceborg accounts (including the lovely Ken Manthey). When I go to invite people to events I'm producing, I see them and wonder why I don't un-Friend them. But that seems sort of shitty to remove them for the act of dying, yes?  

As these pieces of unrelated, but completely similar information have been banging around in my skull, I find myself looking at people: in the gym, at the Mariano's, at work, on the street. Which of them will die and leave their Facebook profile as a digital doppelgänger of their lives? Who among them will die and, being practically invisible in life, no one fucking notices? I also find myself checking in randomly with people I know but haven't heard from in a while just to make sure they aren't rotting in front of multiple episodes of The Bachelorette or Game of Thrones.

I believe that if I died like Joyce Vincent, I would be found relatively soon after. I hope. But I'd love for my Facebook profile to remain active. In fact, I kind of want to pay someone to keep posting angry statuses for a few years after my death as a sort of metaphysical joke or a Houdini calling out from beyond the grave thing.

Not sure who would find it funny but I'd be dead so I probably wouldn't care.