Digitized mourning

Anna Haverinen, PhD student
University of Turku, Digital culture

In the 21st century the Internet has taken a permanent place in social and cultural interactions, commerce, searching information and distributing data (see e.g. Boellstorff 2008; Markham 1998; Reid 1994; Uotinen 2005). Virtual memorials have also developed immensly with Web 2.0, which means more user-centered, collective intelligence utilization, and faster and lighter information transfer (O’Reilly 2005). Faster and cheaper broadband services and comprehensive virtual technology (e.g. mobile phones, wireless networks, portable computers) have also helped the virtual world to take its place in the (global) communication cultures including practices of mourning.
In my PhD study I examine the various ways of expressing loss, sorrow and honoring the memory of the deceased in virtual environments. My geographical focus is in Finland, however, I have already studied this matter in my master’s thesis in which I collected international ethnographic material. I use this material as completentary to my PhD thesis, since this phenomena is – as many other cultural and technological innovations – transferred to Finland through the Web. The results so far indicate that the virtual nature of the memorial site has a similar significance as an actual memorial, e.g. gravesite (Haverinen 2009). The creators of these websites are either family or friends, and reasons of keeping the sites open for public can be for practicality (no passwords needed), or as one informant claimed “–to announce to the world how great a man my husband was (to friends and strangers)” – Yolanda (Haverinen 2009: 54). Using websites to cope with loss and sorrow seems to help in the mourning process, especially if the physical resting place of the deceased is either non-existent or too far away: “I would love to create a physical memorial for my sister, since she was cremated, per her wishes, I feel kind of lost because there is no place I can go to grieve for her (for example there is not gravesite) I think that is why the website has been so healing for me” -Sandy (Haverinen 2009: 55).
Memory-Of.com frontpage, screencaptured 1.10.2010, Anna Haverinen
Since the mid 1990’s, virtual cemeteries and virtual memorial sites have increased tremendously in popularity and size, especially in the United States (Haverinen 2009). However, the Finnish public has been reluctant to adopt this new practise of mourning, since there is no to date a Finnish virtual memorial website, althought one is currently in the designing process by the Finnish Funeral Association. Regardless of this, during the past three years (2007-2010) memorial groups and pages in the Finnish Facebook network have increased in number. This might be a result of our cultural habit of keeping loss and sorrow as private and, at best, “matters of the family”. Finland used to be the top in adapting mobile technology, but after the burst of the IT-bubble Finland seemed to have dropped from the international comparisons. For example, compared to Americans Finns do not utilize social media and virtual communications as comprehensive as given the current technological infrastructure, and so it seems worth asking whether this slowness of adapting technology has to do with anthropologically interesting rules of social interaction in this country, for instance the idea that the culture is very strict about individual’s “personal space”.
Memorial services and mourning in online-games seems to be also a popular way to mourn the loss of a co-player. World of Warcraft and Second Life have taken in a practise of virtual reminiscing, since the game-developer’s integrate whole memorial parks (e.g. Linden Lab for Second Life) or as Blizzard Entertainment (WoW) has created virtual memorials which are either integrated in the game as part of “quests”, or as individual parts of the game scenery. However, there has also been incidents of “fake deaths” where a player fakes his or hers death in real-life to create sensation. These fakers are seen very unpleasant and adolescent.
World of Warcraft integrated memorial for Michel Koiter, ‘Shrine of the Fallen Warrior’, screencaptured 4.11.2009, Heidi Similä.
General attitudes towards virtual mourning and memorialized profiles in Finland seem to vary immensly, especially between different age groups where the young seem to adapt this conduct more easily and the elders are more reluctant and are clinging to old customs. Also being accustomed to virtual technology seems to determine if virtual mourning is accepted or not. Negative attitudes are usually explained and justified by how virtual memorials are perceived as disrespectful and/or harmful for the family of the deceased. Positive attitudes claim how other parts of lives are already in the Web, thus death should be included as well. Reasons such as accessibility, speed and easiness are some key reasons to mourn virtually.
Nevertheless, some virtual mourning forms are already part of normative every(virtual) mourning day practises, such as lighting a virtual candle at the most popular Finnish site www.sytytakynttila.fi (eng. ‘light a candle’), which was launched in 2001. To date it has approximately 59 000 candles with condolences to both public and private figures, tragedic events and anything that should be honored and mourned.
Finnish website for virtual candles, www.sytytakynttila.fi, (eng. ‘light a candle’), screencaptured 1.10.2010, Anna Haverinen.
Mortuary rituals are universal and part of rites of passage (van Gennepp 1977), where the persona of the decesed is transferred to another social status and conceptual place: the afterworld. In different rituals the afterworld can be seen as actively affecting the affairs of the living (e.g. Hinduism), or these rituals deal more with memory and loss (e.g. Christianity).
These imaginations of the afterworld are relative and personal, but also seem to be analogical with the virtual “world”. Blogs, profile pages in social media, avatars and other virtual expressions seem to preserve the indentity of a person, which leads to similar phenomenas as bringing flowers and candles infront of the decead’s home or place of death, such as virtual candles.However, it remains to be seen and for antrhopologists to examine how this phenomena will develop. Merely making a technology available will not determine its future, rather, the new possibilities offered by the Web will build on cultural and social aspects, issues of great interest also to anthropology.

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