Death in the age of Facebook

We have all heard of the good and bad of Facebook. The good including the ability to find old friends, and keep in touch with friends and family. The bad including the well documented problems with Facebook privacy, the somewhat egocentric aspect (i.e. it encourages you to let everyone know the minutiae of your life which probably even bore you!), and the chance that the safety of users will be compromised if they give out too many personal details.

Well, here’s another for the bad column. Although perhaps this extends to all social networking sites, and modern communication in general. I’m thinking here specifically of Twitter and text messaging. I love text messaging as much as (probably more than!) most people, but it does get used for some messages that are probably best given in person, and on a one-to-one basis.

Recently, a friend lost his brother in a car accident. Within hours people were posting condolence messages on the brother’s Facebook page. While this was meant in a caring way, the problem is that not all of the brother’s immediate family had been notified of his death. So his elderly mother had to be woken in the middle of the night to be told of her son’s death. And because the mother lives alone, and doesn’t have other family in her town, a minister had to be woken and dispatched to be with her when she got the news. The brother’s eldest daughter, who was on an overnight flight between South Africa and Europe, also had to be contacted immediately on landing. She’s a tech-savvy person who uses Facebook on her mobile device, so would have seen the messages. As she was there on business, there was nobody to be there with her when she received the bad news.  Then followed days of worry for her family back in South Africa, as she took the news really badly, and communication with her was difficult.

In another case, a friend of ours was killed in a freak boating accident while working in Malaysia. Here it wasn’t the initial notification of his death which was the problem. Working in a more remote area, most people did not have daily contact with him. While Facebook proved to be a good method of letting all his friends know what had happened, and for them to leave messages of condolence for his family, his Facebook page has become a spooky kind of shrine. In some cases, people do not seem to know he has died. In others they write to him to tell him how much he is missed. While it is a testament to how many people knew and loved him, I wonder whether this allows closure for his family? I know that they did appreciate friends and colleagues telling their stories of him at his memorial service, but I wonder if this way of trying to keep his memory alive is the most appropriate? But maybe that’s just me . . .

Another aspect to this is that local (and by local, I mean within the same country i.e. within easy telephone access)  friends are no longer speaking to the family in person to convey their condolences. They’re avoiding that awkward moment of not knowing what to say to somebody who has just lost a loved one. I’m not sure how the families in the above cases felt about this. But on witnessing the above examples, I didn’t have the feeling that Facebook was the way to go. I know that when my father died, my mother really appreciated people taking the time to have personal contact with her. Even if they didn’t know what to say, the personal contact helped her through a very difficult time.

What do you think?


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Categories: Random


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at and (my photoblog)


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13 Comments on “Death in the age of Facebook”

  1. GeoRoMancer
    November 1, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    I agree that people are using Facebook (In-Your-Face-Book? FaceCrook? ) so they can avoid those awkward moments when expressing their condolences.

    Another possible aspect, especially for younger people – well, at least younger than me – is that they are used to spreading quite personal information via such social networking sites.

    • November 1, 2010 at 11:15 am #

      One would have thought they’d have heard the horror stories of posting personal info on the Internet.

  2. November 1, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    I agree with you – social networking can be so weird that way. Nothing beats personal contact, and social networking certainly can’t replace it.

    • November 1, 2010 at 11:16 am #

      Wonder if anybody has ever drawn up guidelines of what is and isn’t appropriate to post on Facebook?

  3. November 2, 2010 at 1:47 am #

    I totally agree and thanks for saying it so well. Not knowing what to say is ok, it communicates caring in its own way, too.

    • November 2, 2010 at 8:14 am #

      Thanks for visiting!

      I agree, sometimes it’s not what you say to someone that counts. It’s being there and letting them talk about how they’re feeling, which is as important.

  4. November 2, 2010 at 6:38 am #

    I have a pretty strong opinion about “In-Your-Face-Book”, as GeoRoMancer calls it, and the ways it is being used (abused?). For now I’ll just say: wall posts can make the person on the receiving end feel pressured and uncomfortable, even if the sender is left with a feeling of duty-done. Sometimes, when you don’t know what to say, to say nothing is the right thing to do.

  5. November 3, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    I can see both sides of the argument, but what I really don’t get is something an acquaintance of ours did. Her son died and a few months after his death, she set up a Facebook page. It was treated in the same way as if he was still alive, not a ‘memorial’ page as such. I find that quite freaky. Each to their own but I would hate for anyone to do that for me when I go!

    • November 4, 2010 at 5:18 am #

      I can imagine how painful it must be to bury your own child. This sounds like the modern version of keeping a person’s room untouched for many years after they die.

      I agree though, it is a bizarre thing to do.

  6. November 5, 2010 at 3:15 am #

    I think this is a great question. Talking about these things is how we learn to fix problems.
    I’m not a big fan of the whole Facebook argument as such. It’s here, it’s here to stay. Use it if you want to, and know that you will be left out of certain things if you don’t. Civilization doesn’t move backwards ever, and we won’t slow down either.
    I think that some of these issues are the result of adapting to new changes in the way we do things. We have to learn what works and what doesn’t.
    I’m wondering for example how it is that facebook friends would know about someone’s death before their own mother. Yes we can communicate much more quickly, but it would only be fair to say to someone, “Don’t talk about this until the family knows.”
    Putting up a page for someone who has died seems strange, but that might be only because we’ve never had the option before. It is pretty normal to resist change.

    • November 5, 2010 at 5:33 am #

      You’re right, social networking is here to stay. I think people need to use common sense when using something like Facebook.

      “I’m wondering for example how it is that facebook friends would know about someone’s death before their own mother.”

      The short version is that friends were travelling with the brother when he was killed. They obviously took it online – or told other friends – before the family could all be notified. To apply common sense to this kind of situation, I would have waited for family to post a notification before making any comment on Facebook.

  7. November 7, 2010 at 7:26 am #

    So true.
    I guess we have to learn to think about these things.

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