Social media and mourning: Funerals may be the last frontier

NEW YORK (AP) — Taya Dunn Johnson has been living large online for years, embracing Facebook, Twitter and other social streams to frequently share her most mundane and intimate moments.

Her husband — her high school sweetheart and an IT specialist — was an offline kind of guy, though he was surrounded by post-happy loved ones, colleagues and friends and had no problem with that.

Then he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 37 and his wife found herself entrenched in what just might be the last frontier for privacy, his funeral.

“I held two services and had to ask several people not to take photos of his casket,” said Johnson, a 38-year-old administrative assistant who lives in Baltimore with her 6-year-old son. “The idea of it disturbed me. Days later, I noticed several people had ‘checked-in’ from the funeral home on a couple of platforms.”

Actively using social media as she did when tragedy struck in 2012, and as she still does, Johnson understands why Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg asked mourners, tech powerhouses included, to stay off social media from her husband David Goldberg’s memorial service Tuesday.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Johnson said. “We share everything from our new car to our meal to our new dress. Somehow those things have become interchangeable with death.”

Ann Bacciaglia, a customer support worker for a large corporation in Ottawa, was also an avid social media user when her husband of 18 years died suddenly of an undiagnosed brain cyst in 2011. He was 44.

Like Johnson’s husband, he had no interest in social streams, which didn’t keep Bacciaglia from announcing his death on Twitter. It never occurred to her to ask their loved ones to refrain from pulling out their phones at his funeral. None did.

In the year after his death, she publicly blogged about her grief and leaned even more heavily on her online followers and friends for support. Other young widows reached out, and helping them through their losses was her best medicine.

“Social media just wasn’t something my husband saw the point of, but it’s a huge part of how I grieved and continues to be very important to me,” Bacciaglia said.

Offline or on Facebook, crass is crass when it comes to funerals and memorial services, said David Ryan Polgar, a lawyer and former college professor in West Hartford, Connecticut, who blogs about tech and ethics.

“Would you want to see Google Glass at a funeral? Nothing can replace that human connection,” he said. “There are certain times for a heightened awareness, a need to stay in the moment, and a funeral is one of them.”

Walker Posey, a funeral director in South Carolina and a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said tech definitely has its place in the mourning process but selfies from cemeteries aren’t among them. Unfortunate use of social media, however, is not something most funeral directors routinely need to address, he said.

His funeral home in North Augusta includes this etiquette suggestion on its website just in case: “Don’t infringe on the family’s right to privacy. In today’s world of social media and technology, it is essential to remember that these tools are a way of showing support and care for the family who is experiencing grief. The use of technology and social media to post anything which may violate the family’s right to privacy or ability to properly grieve must be avoided.”

Sometimes the violators are the most grief stricken. A Facebook user once posted a photo of himself at the cemetery with his mother’s casket behind him. Another put up a photo of her mother’s will in a status update about her role as executor of the estate.

Posting is one thing, Posey said, but web tech can be valuable to the bereaved. His funeral home and others around the country offer livestreams of funerals and memorials as a way for far-flung loved ones to be connected. He sets up 30 to 40 webcasts a year, including one from the funeral of a grandmother so her two grandsons serving in the military in Iraq could be virtually present.

“Bringing a casserole to the house is a great thing but if you can’t, these things can be just as meaningful. Not everybody can attend but leaving a message on a memorial site, for example, can still help and have an impact,” Posey said.

Molly Kalan has looked deeply into social media and mourning. She wrote her master’s thesis on the subject, delving into how grief is expressed online.

“I think that social media platforms provide a great opportunity for anyone to express condolences, especially if they don’t feel comfortable doing so otherwise. However, the implications are worth considering. What this study showed me was that sometimes we are engaging in these behaviors in a way that pushes us further from confronting mortality and allowing ourselves to feel the discomfort of thinking about death and grief,” said Kalan, who lives in Boston.

Offline, fiddling with phones at funerals is a big issue, said Lesly Devereaux, an ordained minister, grief counselor and writer of devotional books in Piscataway, New Jersey. While officiating, she has rarely needed to head off casket selfies or unauthorized tweeting, but phones pose a problem.

“I’ve had to say, ‘Put your phones away.’ Phones rings, people are texting, people are just not being focused on what they’re there for,” she said. “But social media does have its place in reaching out for support.”

The 47-year-old Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, died Friday when he slipped on a treadmill and struck his head while on a family vacation in Mexico, according to officials there.

While Sandberg asked mourners not to post live from his memorial, she took to Facebook soon after to offer thanks for an outpouring of support.

It was a long post — shared more than 18,000 times in just hours.

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