Increasingly, we live by social media - and some are dying by it
Kevin Apuzzio's funeral was a sight to behold, both online and off.
The young firefighter - just 21 years old, barely out of Rutgers University - died in April 2006 while trying to pull a 75-year-old woman from her burning home when the floor collapsed. Apuzzio died a hero, and seemingly every fire truck, ambulance and police chopper in New Jersey hovered outside the church on the morning friends and family gathered to say goodbye. Even then-Governor Jon Corzine showed up to pay his respects.
Online, another memorial service had been under way for days. And while it attracted no politicians or helicopters, friends and family couldn't have asked for a more perfect gathering. After all, Apuzzio had created it himself.
Within hours of his death, Apuzzio's Facebook profile was transformed into a digital memorial. Friends who'd learned about his death from the local news flocked to the site to share their grief, upload pictures and even write messages to Apuzzio himself.
"People started posting stories and photos and remembrances of Kevin, saying they had seen him just yesterday, and how shocked they were and how they weren't sure how they would cope with such an unlikely and untimely death," says Sara Dyer, who went to college with Apuzzio.
It's an increasingly common scenario, but, like most things involving death in our society, not one that's often discussed.
When members of a social network pass away, their profiles frequently become a place for loved ones to share their memories, express their grief and even communicate with the deceased. So it would seem that as social networks like MySpace and Facebook affect all facets of how we live, so too do they affect how we die, or at least how we are remembered.
The occurrence has become so commonplace that Facebook has established a special status for such pages - replacing the former policy to remove the pages of deceased members shortly after they passed away.
"We used to have a policy of removing profiles after 30 days" of a person's death, says Brandee Barker, a Facebook spokeswoman. "We re-evaluated that policy after the Virginia Tech shooting, because we realized that the site had become a very important way for people to communicate about not only the safety and status of what was going on during the tragedy, but also to mourn the victims," she says. The 2007 rampage by a depressed student left more than 30 dead at the Virginia university.
Today, if Facebook is notified of a member's death, that person's profile is placed into "memorial state."
"The person is removed from any groups and the status is taken away, because it's not being updated," Barker says. "People can still post on that person's profile, and their birthday remains in the system, so that is still reflected on people's birthday notifications."
Facebook will remove a deceased person's profile if a member of that person's family requests it, but it will not honor requests simply to alter it, such as removing risqué or unflattering pictures. The profile you leave is the profile that survives (just one more reason to think twice about posting that photo of yourself drinking from a beer bong).
The phenomenon is not limited to Facebook, either. MySpace pages are also frequently transformed into digital memorials, and that site has developed its own policies for dealing with them.
A profile on MySpace is never deleted for inactivity, but the site will remove the profile of a deceased member at the request of the family. And like Facebook, it does not allow anyone to alter the content of a profile after the member has passed away.
"Given the sensitive nature of deceased member profiles, MySpace handles each incident on a case-by-case basis when notified and will work with families to respect their wishes," a spokeswoman wrote in an email.
"We often hear from families that a user's profile is a way for friends to celebrate the person's life, giving friends a positive outlet to connect with one another and find comfort during the grieving process," she said.
Posting photos or sharing a favorite memory seem to be the most common ways people use social networks to remember a lost loved one, as was the case with Apuzzio's page. In that way, social networks simply provide mourners the digital equivalent of a real-life memorial, albeit one with greater functionality than, say, a headstone or a wreath of flowers placed at an accident site.
"The purpose of a memorial is to create an accurate memory picture of that person who lived so we can say goodbye to the physical person who is no longer here, but hold on to the spiritual and emotional relationship we have with them," says Russell Friedman, executive director of The Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "You've just moved it from a chapel to online."
One major difference, of course, is that a profile page can exist in perpetuity, allowing new pictures or stories to emerge over time.
Chris Catropa, a recent graduate of Fordham University in New York, said he still checks the Facebook page of a college friend who died almost two years ago because others continue to post new pictures of her or share previously untold stories.
"Sure enough, even this week or last week people were posting little memories," he said. "I think her birthday was coming up, and friends continually post on her wall."
Another difference is the intimacy of the communication. Mourners on Facebook often use a profile page to write messages directly to the deceased, a practice that might seem silly in another setting but feels almost natural in the hyper-connected world of social networking.
"Jordan, thank you for always being you," wrote one man on the wall of a friend who had died suddenly in December. "It is obvious that I am one of many who thought so highly of you," wrote another.
And then there is the practical side of grieving via social network. Those dealing with the aftermath of a loved one's death often grapple with how to spread the word about funeral arrangements and where condolence cards should be sent, and social networks can play a major role in getting that done.
In the days after Apuzzio's death, his family used his Facebook profile as an easy way to get the word out.
"It would be the first thing you would see everyday when you went to his page during that period," says Dyer, his college friend. "Where the memorial service was going to be and how to contact the family and everything like that."
But there is a dark side to the connectivity that social networks provide to the grieving. Just as they can create a false sense of community among the living, sites like Facebook and MySpace allow some to focus more on their grief than on recovery.
"A memorial is helpful, but it doesn't help people move on," says Friedman, of the Grief Recovery Institute. "It can help us remember things, but it doesn't allow us to complete the relationship with these people. It doesn't provide a recovery tool."
Like the widow who drives an hour every day to visit her husband's grave, or the parents who insist on keeping their dead son's room exactly as he left it, some mourners become painfully preoccupied with the profile page of their lost loved one.
Wendy, a communications professional from Bucks County, Penn., tells about a friend who became "obsessed" with her son's Facebook page after he committed suicide. More than three months after the incident, she "gets very upset if there are no wall posts for a few days - she feels like people are forgetting him," writes Wendy, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her friend's privacy.
Michelle Lentz, a social media consultant from Cincinnati, lost her younger sister, Krystal Pepper, in October 2007 to an undiagnosed heart defect, and immediately started a Facebook fan page as a place where people could share their memories and learn about the arrangements. "That had over 200 users so quickly it was ridiculous," she says. The page was instrumental in helping her and her parents during a difficult time, and people continue to post to it today. But an unintended side effect was that Krystal's actual profile page has gone untouched, unintentionally preserved precisely as she left it, and the family is unsure what to do with it.
"Krystal's own profile page has remained rather pristine and untouched, which I find interesting," she said. "Just as my parents have left every little thing in her room untouched, it's as if everyone wants to leave her page exactly as she left it."
Friedman of the Grief Recovery Institute says he often hears of people becoming obsessed with the Facebook memorials or online obituaries of people they never met because they are looking for an outlet for their own grief.
It's that dual nature of social networking - its ability to bring us together while simultaneously keeping our distance - that makes it so attractive as a vehicle for mourning, Friedman says. Hence, it's as true in grief as it is in all aspects of life: Sites like MySpace and Facebook are best used as a supplement to human interaction, not as a replacement.
"Grieving people tend to isolate, which is one of the traps for grievers," he says. "It's like the old line, 'Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.' What helps is to be in the same physical room with other people," Friedman adds. "Online, there is too much isolation."