tombstone with a butterfly

The Evolution of Cemeteries – From Family Plots to Facebook

“The truth is that we all live by leaving behind; no doubt we all profoundly know that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do all things and know everything.”

The scuttlebutt is loud online. Facebook has become the world’s newest graveyard, with 8,000 users dying daily and countless more friends and family member adding comments to their departed’s Facebook page. The numbers of the dead on Facebook are rising fast: 30 million and growing. While we will all die, our digital presence continues living, memorializing our political interests, favorite recipes, photographs, travels, and friendships.

Social media has taught us about the power of the moment – connecting right now with people around the globe over awards show, television programmes, football games, social justice issues, and whatnot. But now it may be time to consider what comes after all that: our legacy.

BBC, Facebook is a growing and unstoppable graveyard, Brandon Ambrosino, 14 March 2016

I’m at the age when one considers legacy.  Last week I spent a splendid few days in Lancaster County, PA with my son.  It was one of those visits when you request your grown child inquire about any mysteries he might have about you, your family or his childhood so that he may learn before it is too late.  The beauty of the countryside underscored our conversations:  rich rolling farmland, American history at every stop sign and quaint and tidy graveyards scattered between dense green forests. Languid hours were spent at a large Amish celebration and I was regaled with Amish gossip, private tours of stables and homes and the wagging tongues of young women, barefoot, and yes, pregnant.  Nestled aside the massive yard, where the men and boys played softball, a small Amish cemetery lay, with weathered tombstones from the 1700s.  A resting place for the dead and a symbol of the evolution of American cemeteries from small family plots into the very first ‘rural cemeteries and presently, the less scenic 20th-century ‘memorial gardens’.

Keith Eggener, an associate professor of American art and architecture at the University of Missouri writes:

What really fascinates me is the idea of liminality: the joining together of two very different states. You have a kind of intensification of knowledge and emotion. The Transcendentalists were fascinated by cemeteries, and I’m fascinated by the same things: the coming together of these disparate states of life and death, nature and culture. Cemeteries are the places that those kinds of meetings of the past and the future come to the fore.

Burial isn’t just about celebrating the dead. It’s about containing the dead—keeping them out of the realm of the living, which is why cemeteries were removed from cities. We would like to go into their world when it’s convenient for us. Look at themes in popular culture, at how often the worlds of the living and dead intersect and how disastrous that often is. Think of zombie movies—havoc usually ensue.

The fact that you are leaving the mundane world behind is the reason I have roamed cemeteries in all my travels.  In the early 1800s cemeteries moved from family plots to places with exquisite gates, winding paths and picturesque vistas and people entered into the space to ponder, concentrate and contact spirituality.  There were no public parks, so cemeteries became the landscape for picnics, carriage racing and an appreciation of the arts as seen by wondrous sculptures and gardens.

Memorial Parks took over the role of these enchanting burial grounds and now we leave our dead in hopelessness.  Cement square buildings, tiny universal slabs with mere names and dates on them and an occasional flag or plastic flower bouquet.  These grounds seem bereft of imagination and there is little to learn about those allegedly memorialized.

In recent years, technology crept into our notion of death.  Families can buy computerized devices to place at a grave and a terminal will scroll up with photos of the loved one and excerpts from their lives, favorite poetry, songs or literature.  Tech for the dead is evolving., launched in 2014, will create a digital version of “you” that will live on after your death. Death is certain, admits the website — but what if you could live forever as a digital avatar, “and people in the future could actually interact with your memories, stories, and ideas, almost as if they were talking to you?”

And now, it is Facebook.  You can have a page ‘memorialized’ and the user’s profile is entitled “remembering”: The dead user will cease to receive friend requests or birthday reminders – the page will simply remain online for those he or she knew to visit occasionally.  Other Facebook users who have died will remain alive on their pages, with friends and families leaving quotes, messages, memories, and photos.  The entries are typically sentimental and cliche – but that’s what grieving often is, even if while you’re in it grieving feels like you’re the only one in the world in so much pain. After all, there are only so many ways to write about death that feel new or interesting.

Digital data does not allow us to forget.  If I were to die tomorrow, people could peruse my Facebook page and see thousands of photographs of my experiences and travels.  They would learn about my taste in literature and the arts, in friends, and probably be able to decipher my world view.  So is Facebook a window to my soul?

In the past, remembering the dead had a physical element to it. You had to go somewhere to honour them: a graveyard, a church, a memorial. Or you had to take out a box of photographs or an album or an obituary clipping. You had to take some time from the present to think about your past, your history, your time with that person. In Facebook, all places are present, all times are now.

– Brandon Ambrosino

Personally, I am not so sure I want my digital data to live beyond me. I told my son so, as we were pontooning down a languid Pennsylvania lake.  I only joined the social networking sphere at his insistence, since he was taking off on a world adventure and I was concerned about how to learn about his whereabouts. I prefer my memory to fade, to be private, and to only make itself known to those who I loved when it serves their own growth and understanding of this very peculiar thing we call Life.