The New Act of Mourning in the 21st Century

by / 0 Comments / 115 View / February 17, 2015

Dean Smith died last week. He lived 83 good years, making the most of his time on this Earth. He innovated the game of basketball, helping coach some of the greatest players and some of the greatest teams in the history of the game. He was a great man, with his accomplishments on the court being only half of the Dean Smith Story. He took hard stances in politics, standing for what he believed in, whether it was integration, or opposing the death penalty, or supporting Democratic politicians. If I was forced to sum up his life in one sentence, my attempt would be this: Dean Smith is Jacob Marley if Marley had indeed made mankind his business.

Or, to put that another way: “Dean Smith an educator and great coach will not be forgotten. He taught player more than just bball skills RIP.” That quote is a tweet by Phil Jackson, another coach who innovated basketball in a way unlikely to be repeated in any meaningful way. It is also the worst eulogy I have ever seen. It is so grammatically childish that I can’t figure out where to put brackets with what he meant to say without seeming mean.

I would not want to, either. Read the quote again; let it wash over you. Think about how disingenuous it seems. Not is, mind you. I have no reason to believe Phil Jackson doesn’t mean every word he wrote. But that is not the issue.

Dean Smith lived 83 years, and all he got in return was a eulogy 110 characters long—30 less than the Twitter maximum.

Grieving through social media is strictly a modern day phenomenon. It seems easy to do—throw together two sentences about how this entertainer touched your life (Robin Williams), or about what this newsman meant to the industry (Bob Simon or David Carr), and you are all of a sudden a great, caring person who, by extension of hearing the news of the death of a titan, feels the sting of the loss.

I do not mean to doubt anyone’s sincerity, especially when it comes to matter of grief. But I must call into question the use of social media, especially Twitter, because, for me, it comes back to a paradox of sorts: If the recently deceased has touched your life as much as you claim—and I am not doubting it has—why use 140 characters to convey it?

Take this tweet from Blake Hounshell: “RIP RT @BobSimon1: If you want to be loved, journalism is a poor career choice.” What Hounshell did was quote a Bob Simon tweet and add “RIP” to it, an almost terrifyingly creepy addition to this new phenomenon.

Maybe I am a pessimist, but I have to wonder why, exactly, Hounshell felt the need to do this. He is not adding anything of value. They are old friends, perhaps, but why would he wish his old friend a restful final rest over Twitter? There is a danger to that, as Phil Jackson learned with his eulogy. Anyone can reply anything to any tweet. So, with Jackson’s eulogy to Smith, someone referring to themselves as Patrick Chewing, with the handle @TheGimp420, replied “ha ha my Mom made me read your book in 94 to get a pair of J’s. Buwhahaha.” What, you may ask, this has to do with the death of Dean Smith, I’ll tell you: I don’t know; but it’s Twitter! And when you casually whisper about the deaths of giants, the trolls scream louder than whatever good intentions you wish to cite.

Social media adds another dimension to what it means to grieve. For the ones left behind, it provides a constant to look at. Think of Hounshell retweeting Bob Simon’s tweets.

If you think this is purely on a public or semi-public level, it isn’t. Two New Year’s ago, in my hometown, a girl was killed in a car accident. She was young, still in high school.  I knew her brother—not well though—but I will withhold her name for the purposes of this article.

The news spread like wildfire on Twitter. My friend retweeted classmates offering their condolences and prayers, and therefore I and the rest of his 150 followers became informed. Over the next few days, the girl’s Facebook page became a resting stop for good wishes that the girl would never see. Friends, family, and classmates all told her how nice and caring and wonderful she was; about how heaven gained an angel due to her untimely death. Flowers on a grave became posts on a Facebook page.

That’s not the thing that stuck with me, though. Her Facebook page has since been taken down. But, when it was there, days after her death, everything was the same. If you scrolled down far enough, you could see her very last post. Her profile picture was still there, unchanged, because why wouldn’t it be? I remember it vaguely, perhaps incorrectly: she was smiling, that I can be sure of; and I think she was holding a pink flower, or maybe she was playing with some of her friends on a swing-set. Her eyes were glowing with happiness, though; that is the truth.

But maybe none of that is the point. Maybe she wasn’t meant to see those posts. Dying is forever; it’s the longest thing you’ll ever do. But remembrance—that’s the hard part. Nothing is forgotten on the Internet. And maybe that’s the key.

Maybe the condolences and well-wishes were for her family, left behind and in mourning. Seeing everyone rally to express how sorry they are that their daughter was taken—it has to mean something, right? At least to prove that they aren’t alone, that someone cares.

Maybe that’s what the tweets are for—not to have a popularity contest of sorts as to who can grieve harder, but to add to the last mass conversation about the person, to share what you wish you would have said to the deceased when he or she were still alive, but are now forced to settle for your twitter followers, where the thought and content can never be erased.

The Egyptians had pyramids for their dead. Shah Jahan’s third wife is housed inside the Taj Mahal. These are forever items, standing the test of time, reserved for those in society deemed worthy of remembrance. Social media has allowed us to deem everyone worthy of such a remembrance, from the personal to the public, ensuring that with death does not come the end.