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

This past spring, I taught a digital humanities course on American Dead and Undead.  The premise of the course was fairly simple: we shouldn't study the dead and undead in isolation from one another.  Following the lead of Philippe Ariès, many scholars have argued that Americans have lost a language for talking about death and increasingly have delegated death rites to professional personnel and spaces.  If so, have the undead provided us with a new space and vocabulary for publicly talking about dying and what happens to us after death?  To answer this question, my students and I turned to a wide range of artifacts (real and virtual) to look at what Americans from the colonial era to the present think happens when we die.  We also looked at the rise of the undead in the American imagination and thought about correlations between the narratives of dead and undead.

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 [2004], 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 [1975], 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 [1997]).

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:
1. Death and dead bodies have re-invaded our personal space.  Perhaps when Ariès wrote the dead were concealed, but in the age of the internet, the dead were often graphically present.  Were all displays of dead bodies on the internet examples of the "pornography" of death, or were we actually becoming immune to the shock and revulsion that accompanies a corpse?  Caleb Wilde's extreme popular twitter feed and blog "Confessions of a Funeral Director" was one example of the internet as a space in which people could demystify the funeral home.  (Fellow scholars of American religion will also appreciate that Wilde speaks eloquently about how eloquently about how being a mortician is like being a pastor.)

2. Facebook and social media have made mourning extremely public.  Ariès noted that excessive displays of emotion and public mourning had become seen as embarrassments.  Enter Facebook and the need to micronarrate one's inner self in public.  Today people not only display their mourning publicly, but also in doing so look for (and receive) a "chorus of laments" in response to their loss.  Are public displays of pain no longer taboo in the age of social media?  Many of my students noted that they felt extreme discomfort with and distrust of people who mourned publicly through social media.  If one responded to media prompts about an anniversary of a death, was one's display of sympathy less genuine?  Why did people feel a need to post their loss on the internet?  Did the use of social media as a site of mourning undercut the different levels of experience people had surrounding a specific person's death?  Although "digital natives," my students suggested they were perhaps a generation in transition. Raised to expect one version of mourning, they found social media challenged them with a new way to deal with death.  We wondered if ten years from now, mourning on Facebook would seem normal and no longer suspect. A recent NYTimes article on how "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.)

The sons of Capt. J. K. Moore pay tribute to their collie,
Heidi, in 1957. Pets provide companionship
and balance to many nomadic military families.
Caption and Image from National Park Service, GGNRA
3. We seem to have have changed our relationship to "smaller losses" such as that of pets.  Americans often feel particularly strong emotions about their pets, and consequently pets have presented an important opportunity to practice loss.  For military families living in the Presidio, these "practice runs" at mourning took on great weight.  Usually losses of pets have been fairly private, familial events.  Even well-known pet cemeteries such as the Presidio Pet Cemetery in San Francisco or Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery in Huntington Beach cater to small funerals attended mainly of the owners of the pets and their most devoted friends.  (How many pet funerals have you attended?)  Yet, virtual pet memorials like Peternity have made mourning one's pet much more public as well. Are these smaller public displays retraining people for the larger digital displays of loss when people die?  As they had with Facebook, my students found it hard to accept these digital displays of mourning as utterly genuine, in part because the memorials often registered guilt over having caused a pet's death ([Sir]Eddie, Abby].

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:


Unknown said…
What a great course, project, and course! Thanks so much for sharing.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura - I'm so glad you linked to the syllabus, it's fascinating to see how this worked out over the course of a semester.
Unknown said…
Great course, Laura!! Very insightful and inspiring, thank you for sharing it - I'll share it with my undergrad and grad students.
rjc said…
Sounds like a great course. This might be of interest:
littler said…
Also potentially of interest:

Brubaker, J. and J. Vertesi. Death and the Social Network. Position paper for CHI 2010 workshop, "Death and the Digital."

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