The United States has become increasingly multi-cultural, technology-driven, and economically divided, which makes death a tricky subject to discuss these days. When you’re fully aware that our many broken governing systems and institutions decide who gets to live and who dies, and that those decisions are racially and economically motivated, it makes talking about death in abstract and detached ways a “first-world, corpse-free privilege.“
And when those discussions are driven by anxious Silicon Sultans obsessed with everlasting life, and tree huggers making mushroom death suits that turn your corpse into garden mulch, it only serves to widen the gap between those who can plan for their inevitable demise, and those who are most likely to be killed at the hands of the state.
Which is exactly why it’s an important conversation that all of us need to be part of, and one that I recently participated in at a death “listening party” organized by Meg Dalton at Franklin Street Works, an awesome non-profit community art center in Stamford, Connecticut. A diverse group of weirdos like me gathered in the cafe to munch on popcorn, listen to radio/podcast pieces on death, and talk about it.
Misery loves company!
I have a pretty complicated relationship with death, one that’s both privileged and marginalized with an awkward layer of (white) undocumentedness to it.
My family migrated out of choice, not desperation, so I haven’t experienced that life or death situation many of my undocumented peers from war-torn countries had to deal with, along with a life-threatening journey across the border.
Nor have I spent my life worried I’d get racially profiled as illegal and sent to detention by a person who thought that raiding homes and tearing apart families sounded like a purposeful career. The closest I have come to death is through the violence and threats I’ve been the target of as a woman, which is certainly something to take seriously, but that’s a story for another article.
In fact, I haven’t been to a funeral, period.
I’ve never seen a dead person, not even a cadaver, and I’m still a degree removed from (human) death as far as family and close friends go. This is probably a good time to *knock on wood.*
Mostly what I’m familiar with through my undocumented identity is the echo of death from across the border. It’s a tough situation to be in because it feels like I have to choose between mourning another’s life or my own: I can’t leave the country without being banned from re-entering my home, so I haven’t attended any family members’ funerals.
My grandfather passed this week, and I am experiencing it through texts from my mom, who has a Green Card and was able to fly to Spain to be with him — and because it’s been almost 20 years since we’ve seen each other, I’m not even sure who I’ve lost or how to support my mom outside of sending a block of broken-heart emojis. The emotional part of death can also be a cultural divide when you live in the borderlands of identity.
But what makes death even more complicated these days — and perhaps more equitable? — is the fact that there are 1 billion people on Facebook who are ALL going to die one day.
I was recently faced with this digital reality when Facebook brought it up as casually as one of those embarrassing photos still lingering of me in sexy Halloween costumes.
“Hey you’re gonna die one day, possibly unexpectedly, and 90% of your life is online – what are you gonna do about it?” is not exactly how it prompted me to create a legacy contact, but it was close.
Three hours later I’d fallen down a rabbit hole of articles on the digital afterlife, and prompted by memories of my own experience watching acquaintances, colleagues and celebrities die awkwardly over social media, I started to ask myself questions about my digital death. Do I really want my digital presence to stick around like some pixelated time capsule, open and vulnerable to hackers? Do I want to make a friend or family member moderate random acquaintances’ performed grief along with the real-life logistics of death?
Out of everyone in my life, my sister’s the most likely to forgive me and stick around when I became an even bigger asshole in my old age.
I did the same for my Google account, adding Carla again, and this time, writing an instructional email that will trigger after 12 months of inactivity with the subject line “I wrote this before I died, so don’t freak out” — because no one wants their dead sister’s name popping up in their inbox a year later without some upfront explanation.
What I didn’t do was give her access to my private email — not because I’m pulling a Hillary, but because that seemed a bit overwhelming to deal with (I say that as someone obsessed with Inbox Zero).
I also didn’t hold my sis accountable for doing anything with all of the content she’ll receive in the form of blogs and photos and such.
They’ll be there for her to look at or share if she chooses to, with no responsibility to curate or publish my work so I become posthumously famous (but there’s definitely some potential there, Carla…)
I almost talked myself out of memorializing my social media while writing this thing, but I can’t help remembering the recent death of a respected colleague, and how her Facebook account disappeared within days of her succumbing to cancer, leaving a void for those of us who wanted to connect with her friends and family, or just look through photos to remember her beautiful smile and all the good times.
Someone ended up creating a Facebook group for her digital memorial, but it was no longer curated by her, nor was it accessible to everyone on her friend list.
But really, at the end of the day (err, life), I’ve spent way too much time curating my social self through Tumblr blogs, hilarious Tweets, heartfelt blog posts, and flawless Facebook humble-brags to have it all disappear when I do.
How will my community of friends and family share their treasured memories of me if they can’t make it to watch my body burst into shiitake mushrooms (Carla, I DO NOT give you permission to live stream that shit)?
What are all my secret admirers going to look at as they lament never expressing their undying love for me?
And who better to moderate the conversation about how awesome I was than the person who slept in the same room as my night farting for 15 years?
I’m satisfied with my digital planning thus far and suggest everyone consider spending an hour or two figuring it out, ’cause the world is scary, and it’s one way to take some control when it feels like you have none.
Now that I’ve got the important part taken care of, I can finally move on to figuring out the corpse thing.
Does anyone compost?