What happens on Facebook when we die?

Anybody who follows Facebook has probably heard about the user who found it impossible to delete his account; even after he deactivated his profile, it showed up in searches and various Facebook news feeds.

If you can’t get out of Facebook when you’re alive, what happens when you die?

What happens to your Facebook profile when you die?

Sadly, this is not a rhetorical question. I’ve had two Facebook friends—first a colleague (and true friend) and second a former student last month—pass away. Yet their Facebook pages persist, digital ghosts with mini-feeds still growing, updated with the usual nonsense and noise (“Mike joined the group Free David Hasselhoff” and “Barrald Terrence and Will Navidson are now friends”) that fill anybody’s Facebook feeds.

In fact, in the second case, I only found out about my student’s death from a terse, surreal update to her profile by a family member, which then showed up in my Facebook news feed. Her Facebook profile has since become a kind of memorial, with dozens of friends writing their goodbyes on her “wall.”

In the first case, nobody has written on my friend’s wall in the six months since he died, though he was loved and respected by hundreds of people across the country. I suspect the difference between my student and my friend’s post-mortem Facebook activity is generational; digital mourning, at least in a consumer-oriented space like Facebook, is considered insensitive or insincere by anyone over the age of 30. And so my friend’s profile is eerily silent, his feed simply stating with no irony that he “has no recent activity.”

I imagine that eventually Web 2.0 will catch up with real life and incorporate grieving into its ecological landscape. Maybe this will be the beta version of Web 3.0.

I don’t know which is creepier: a Facebook engine that doesn’t know when we die and carries on as if we hadn’t; or a Facebook engine that somehow taps into public records and newspaper obituaries, detecting when we die, and initiates a sort of prescribed last will and testament profile update, a more tactful 404 error message.

Tony Soprano Did Not Get Whacked

It seems that public opinion is shifting toward the idea that Tony Soprano was whacked in The Sopranos series finale after the screen went black. That possibility can never entirely be ruled out, which is part of the brilliance of the abrupt, unsatisfying final seconds of the series.

I want to suggest, however, that the blank screen signifies something other than Tony’s death.

In fact, the final seconds of a black screen forever hold Tony’s death in abeyance. It can never happen now. But more fundamentally, the sudden disruption of the Journey song, the disconcerting jump cut to the black screen—these remind us that we are watching television, that our visit with Tony has been mediated all along. Think of the the sudden silence and black screen as a kind of Brechtian moment of estrangement, shocking the viewer out of the usual mode of passive consumption.

We might think of the entire episode (called “Made in America”) as a contemplation upon the habits of the television-watching public. Upon a second viewing, this theory seems obvious, as multiple times we either catch characters on The Sopranos watching television themselves or we the viewers are forced to watch a TV within a TV:


What to make of all this, aside from the commonplace grievance that our lives are mediated, that representation has replaced reality? I think Chase is doing something far more politically charged here. Note that the final shot of a television shows President Bush, famously dancing in April 2007. Chase is clearly mocking Bush, who becomes a Nero figure, fiddling while Rome burns to the ground. When you consider the dozens of references to the War in Iraq and the deadly SUVs in this episode (the Ford Expedition smashing Leotardo’s skull and A.J.’s firebomb of an Xterra), it doesn’t take much to imagine that Chase is making some very serious indictments about American arrogance and American hypocrisy, embodied in everyone from President Bush down to Anthony Soprano, Jr.

Add in the fact that the only things the characters watch more intently in this episode than television sets are gas stations (where Leotardo might use a pay phone), and we have an explicit political statement about Bush’s follies abroad:

The juxtaposition of the American flag and the Gulf truck is surely intentional. As is the display of the American flag every other time in the episode a gas station appears.

Chase seems to be proposing an antidote to the Bush administration’s own mediation of itself, which links Bush to patriotism by always placing him near a Stars and Stripes.

By replacing Bush with the gas station, Chase lays bare the nature of the relationship between the United States and the War in Iraq. It is about oil.

But to say this is to say nothing new. So Chase makes it fresh by making it subtle. He again catches us off guard—so focused are we on those 11 seconds of black space where Tony and his family should be at the end of the episode, we do not recognize what’s really going on. Instead of asking what happens to Tony, we should be asking why are there seven flags at this gas station?

Death in Mother Goose

For Christmas, I gave my son a new edition of the classic The Real Mother Goose, with illustrations by Blanche Fisher Wright. First published in 1916, the book has been a perennial childhood favorite for almost a century. It certainly was one of mine. And so it was with nostalgia that I began reading “Little Bo-Peep” on the first page. An hour later, I had read maybe a hundred more nursery rhymes to my son, who couldn’t get enough.

For a long time I had heard that many popular nursery rhymes were rooted in historical events or based on historical figures. The best known example is “Ring around the Rosey”–supposedly about the plague, although there is little evidence to support such an interpretation. “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is another nursery rhyme that seems to point to a real person, although whether it refers to Mary Queen of Scots or Queen “Bloody Mary” of England is debated.

Regardless of whether nursery rhymes have specific historical antecedents, I have to say, with my nostalgia tinged by a critical eye, that they certainly are about more than just sing-songy rhythms and rhymes.

It’s surprising exactly how many deal with death. There’s “Solomon Grundy,” an old favorite of mine:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
This is the end
Of Solomon Grundy.

Here death is front and center, or at least as equal a part of life as, well, life. Grundy has three days to live healthy, happy, and wise (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), and his downhill spiral, beginning with a mysterious illness on Thursday, takes three days as well (Thursday, Friday, and the death rattle on Saturday). Sunday (born) bookends Monday (died), and the final pair of lines summarizes the story so far: the end is final and inevitable.

But maybe it’s not surprising that death is so central to these nursery rhymes. Death was more a part of daily life in the formative years of Mother Goose (in the 17th century) than now, when we shuffle off our sick and our dying to hospitals and hospices and strive to eliminate the specter of death from modern life. I’m reminded of a remark by Walter Benjamin, who suggests that one of industrialized society’s subconscious goals has been “to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying.” Benjamin continues:

Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one; think of the medieval pictures in which the deathbed has turned into a throne toward which the people press through the wide-open doors of the death house. In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died. (Illuminations 93-94)

Solomon Grundy is a holdover from those days, when everybody died and everybody knew it and everybody saw it.

To be sure, we have death today, but it’s nearly always either spectacular death (an execution caught on a mobile phone, a CGI explosion in a Hollywood blockbuster) or mass death (tsunami victims piled high, mass graves outside a desert village). But ordinary deaths, the Solomon Grundy’s of the world dying dignified at home, surrounded by friends and family. Does anybody experience this any more? “Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death,” Benjamin writes. He calls these people, these living who do not see dying as part of life, “dry dwellers of eternity.”

Benjamin seems to be saying that death quenches the dry desert of eternity. To be touched by death is to be touched by life. To be touched by death is to be full of life.