I’ve thought a lot about this trend of people planning and sharing on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, anywhere online they they’ll gain the most attention, the most morbid and intimate details of death, knowing they will go viral. Today’s post by Martin Manley explaining why he chose suicide has narrowed my opinion to two options: I am, by all accounts, an old school oldster who can’t deal with the oversharing, hypersocial world that would be embraced by a real post-modernist; this is a sign that we’ve ignored death far too long as a society and now people who cannot deal with the pain must express themselves publicly with the desire of informing as many people as possible.
Let’s assume the latter, as the former does nothing but make me seem old. I’d rather think of myself as an old fallen scholar.
In 1989 or 1990, I took an English class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with the incomparable Charles Kay Smith, who encouraged us to debunk the limitations of a birth-school-work-death linear existence. He posited that we Americans have become as prudish about death as the Victorians were about sex. Consider, he asked us, how even our language has shifted to conceal death from our daily existence. In the 19th century, the front parlour was the room in the house used for formal social events, including where the recently deceased were laid out before their funeral. The term living room was used in decorating literature of the 1890s to reflect the personality of the designer, rather than the fleeting Victorian conventions. It was one of those moments when I realized how different I was from any of my peers (a moment that that came often, ever since early childhood when I was able to speak.) In my home, there was a living room. It was a formal sitting room, with a white sofa, artwork and other furniture and decorative pieces that were to be largely untouched, aside from dusting cleaning, when there were no guests. We did not have a parlour, but my mother’s mother -- who had died in my parents’ home where my mother alone cared for her while she was bedridden for some nine years -- was waked in the home. My mother chose to use the dining room, as that is where she keeps her main altar and her most precious Russian Orthodox icon. We had a lively wake, following the somber religious service. For the Russian and Orthodox guests in attendance, this was a typical experience. For the others, this was a new experience, though nobody seemed obviously aghast. It does help that the service is followed by a lively reception with replete with copious amounts of homemade food and adult drink. A kind of Irish wake, with vodka instead of whiskey and piroshki instead of soda bread.
I have friends who hadn’t been to their first funeral until they were in their 20s. To me, this was shocking, as I’d been going since I was an infant, open casket and all, just like at my grandmother’s wake in my parents’ home.
Now I grapple with this notion of making death so public, reaching out into the social megaverse, far beyond any place one might “socialize” in what I consider “real” life. There seems to be a need to overcompensate for how we’ve buried death, dying and all its ugly truths for so long in our “American culture.” To be clear, I vehemently disagree with the late icon Helen Thomas, who like me, was raised (Greek) Orthodox (it is the same faith) on at least one fundamental point. A first-generation American like me, she proclaimed: "We were never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either. These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people." I have always proudly been and hope will always be, a Russian-America, a Ukrainian-American, a Polish-American, a Russian- Ukrainian-Polish-American, a Slavic-American. To me, the hyphen is not divisive, it is defining. I feel as strongly about “hiding” death. I have no problem with cremation as a person’s choice, but not displaying the body to family and loved ones before the cremation seems unnatural, if not inhumane, to me.
Manley’s website is named http://www.zeroshare.info/, though he’s done the opposite. “Today is August 15, 2013. Today is my 60th birthday. Today is the last day of my life. Today, I committed suicide. Today, is the first day this site is active, but it will be here for years to come.” He goes on, in detail, for some 750 words to explain why, closing (if you will) with a link for those “coping with suicide.” We know, in his own words, why he killed himself. What’s left to wonder is why he chose to blog about it, clearly hoping, if not knowing, it would go viral. Maybe spending a career “dealing with sports statistics,” drove him to finally be the news, instead of playing a back office role contributing data for bookies and gamblers.
My personal feelings about suicide aside (I am not here to overshare), Manley’s post has impacted, if not distressed me, more than other similar social media calls for attention. NPR's Scott Simon live-Tweeting his mother's death on July 28 disturbed me, but not because of the details he shared. It made me wonder, once again, how I fit into the social hyperverse, considering I never felt I fit into the pre-social one.
Are Manley and Simon crying for help, attention, something they can’t find offline or without widespread attention? They are not sociopaths like Derek Medina, the 31-year-old Florida man who posted a picture of his wife, Jennifer Alfonso's bloody splayed out on the kitchen floor to his Facebook feed with a note. "Im (sic) going to prison or death sentence for killing my wife love you guys miss you guys takecare (sic) Facebook people you will see me in the news," he wrote, according to investigators.
Then there’s Seattle humor writer Jane Lotter, who died last month of cancer, who wrote her own obit, which went viral and made The New York Times. “One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary,” she wrote, before dying at home alongside her husband and children, thanks to Washington’s Death with Dignity Act.
I grapple with social media in general, how to use it and why I am using it. I have to promote articles I write for my primary job both on Facebook and Twitter, and I use Facebook largely to post photos of my son and to watch my friends’ children grow up across the country and the world. I’m not sure I will ever understand why people use social media to gain massive attention for being among the first to expose the immediate impact of watching someone die, dealing with killing someone or themself. In a social universe, we become so much more isolated, relating less and less in what I consider a personal way. I fear this loss of real connections with people when we need them most is spurring a seismic shift in our society. I am also heartened that people recognize the need to reach out as a means for coping with traumatic experience, and hope it might eventually return to a world with where we can welcome people into our parlour, whatever that means.