Virtually Dead: Religion in the Age of the Internet
by Laura Arnold Leibman
|Gravestone of Isaac Lopez (1762)|
Photo L. Leibman
Jewish Atlantic World Database
I should admit upfront, this was my dream course. We performed seriation studies of local cemeteries, we charted the use of the word "vampire" in early American newspapers, and we discovered and used new digital tools. We also decided that our starting hypothesis of an inverse relationship between language about dead and undead was a bit too simplistic. We kept having to ask, which Americans? Moreover, we discovered that language about death didn't decline steadily, but rose and fell with the advent of wars and moments of national loss. Similarly not all undead were equal in their appeal in any particular era, but rather they waxed and waned in popularity. Vampires, my students decided, were past their prime, and zombies were now being increasingly stratified and humanized to fill the vampiric void. Vampires and zombies did different cultural work.
Some other revelations caught me off guard. Since I am primarily a scholar of early America, we deepened my own sense of what is happening right now, and for me this was the most interesting aspect of the course. Most scholars of twentieth-century American death hadn't historicized the advent of the digital age, and we discovered this was their loss. The internet, my students argued, changed everything, including how we mourn and our sense of eternity.
In The Hour of Our Death (1987), Philippe Ariès argues that an "invisible death model" has dominated twentieth-century American life. In this model,
Death's medicalization distanced the community from the dying and the deceased. Individualism ruled, nature was conquered, social solidarity waned, and not the afterworld but family ties mattered. Western society surrounded death with so much shame, discomfort, and revulsion that Gorer (1965) even spoke of a pornography of death. Death became concealed in hospitals, nursing homes, and trailer parks. Yet, the death of death remained, a fear corresponding more to people's social than biological death. (Antonius C. G. Robben, Death Mourning, and Burial , 4)
Accompanying this dispossession of the dying person is a "denial of mourning" and the subsequent invention of new funerary rituals in the United States (Philippe Ariès, "The Reversal of Death," Death in America, ed. Stannard , 136). Excessive displays of emotion both by the person dying and those they leave behind are considered taboo and "embarrassments." Mourning should be private, not public and communal as it once was (Ariès, "The Reversal of Death,"142, 150). On the literary side, the "shame" associated with death and mourning was accompanied by an increased sense following World War II that consolation was itself somehow unethical (Melissa Zeiger, Beyond Consolation ).
What interested my students, however, was the impact of the internet on the "invisible death model." Have we entered a new era regarding death and loss? They noticed in particular three results of the internet:
An Online Generation Redefines Mourning" resonated with them. My students were also interested in the afterlife of the deceased on Facebook. (Those who still read books might also check out Lisa Nakamura's chapter in "Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web," Digitizing Race, 131-70.)
Caption and Image from National Park Service, GGNRA
Has the internet impacted the way you mourn or your death rites?
To learn more about the American Dead and Undead class and what we covered, check out either the short version of the syllabus or the extended dance remix version.
Also see a few sample final projects by my students: