Et in Facebook ego

Today is the birthday of the friend whose death elicited this post two years ago. I republish it today for your consideration. 

In Nicolas Poussin’s mid-seventeenth century painting, Et in Arcadia ego, shepherds have stumbled upon an ancient tomb on which the titular words are inscribed. Understood to be the voice of death, the Latin phrase may be roughly translated, “Even in Arcadia there am I.” Because Arcadia symbolized a mythic pastoral paradise, the painting suggested the ubiquity of death. To the shepherds, the tomb was a momento mori: a reminder of death’s inevitability.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Poussin was not alone among artists of the period in addressing the certainty of death. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, vanitas art flourished. The designation stems from the Latin phrase vanitas vanitatum omni vanitas, a recurring refrain throughout the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: ”vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” in the King James translation. Paintings in the genre were still lifes depicting an assortment of objects which represented all that we might pursue in this life: love, power, fame, fortune, happiness. In their midst, however, one might also find a skull or an hour glass. These were symbols of death and the brevity of life. The idea, of course, was to encourage people to make the most of their living years.

Edwart Collier, 1690
Edwart Collier, 1690

For the most part, we don’t go in for this sort of thing anymore. Few people, if any, operate under the delusion that we might escape death (excepting, perhaps, the Singularity crowd), but we do a pretty good job of forgetting what we know about death. We keep death out of sight and, hence, out of mind. We’re certainly not going out of our way to remind ourselves of death’s inevitability. And, who knows, maybe that’s for the better. Maybe all of those skulls and hourglasses were morbidly unhealthy.

But while vanitas art has gone out of fashion, a new class of memento mori has emerged: the social media profile.

I’m one of those on again, off again Facebook users. Lately, I’ve been on again, and recently I noticed one of those birthday reminders Facebook places in the column where it puts all of the things Facebook would like you to click on. It was for a high school friend who I had not spoken to in over eight years. It was in that respect a very typical Facebook friendship:  the sort that probably wouldn’t exist at all were it not for Facebook. And that’s not necessarily a knock on the platform. For the most part, I appreciate being able to maintain at least minimal ties to old friends. In this case, though, it demonstrated just how weak those ties can be.

Upon clicking over to their profile, I read a few odd notes, and very quickly it became disconcertingly clear that my friend had died over a year ago. Naturally, I was taken a back and saddened. He died while I was off Facebook, and news had not reached me by any other channel. But there it was. Out of nowhere and without warning my browser was haunted by the very real presence of death. Momento mori.

Just a few days prior I logged on to Facebook and was greeted by the tragic news of a former student’s sudden passing. Because we had several mutual connections, photographs of the young man found their way into my news feed for several days. It was odd and disconcerting and terribly sad all at once. I don’t know what I think of social media mourning. It makes me uneasy, but I won’t criticize what might bring others solace. In any case, it is, like death itself, an unavoidable reality of our social media experience. Death is no digital dualist.

Facebook sometimes feels like a modern-day Arcadia. It is a carefully cultivated space in which life appears Edenic. The pictures are beautiful, the events exciting, the faces always smiling, the children always amusing, the couples always adoring. Some studies even suggest that comparing our own experience to these immaculately curated slices of life leads to envy, discontent, and unhappiness. Understandably so … if we assume that these slices of life are comprehensive representations of the lives people acutally lead. Of course, they are not.

Lest we be fooled, however, there, alongside the pets and witty status updates and wedding pictures and birth announcements, we will increasingly find our virtual Arcadias haunted by the digital, disembodied presence of the dead. Our digital memento mori.

Et in Facebook ego.

55 thoughts on “Et in Facebook ego

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. Facebook, or the internet in general, is indeed “haunted by the digital, disembodied presence of the dead”, as you so aptly put. A dear friend of mine, who happened to introduce me to Facebook, passed away around 7 years ago. The night he passed away, his sister used his account to start a group called ” My Friend”. I ignored it, thinking it was one of his silly jokes, only to find out on Monday morning back at work that he had tragically died in a car crash. Until this day, I still look at his Facebook page at times, and think how disconnected it all seems. Memories of him literally live on until FB’s server dies permanently, and somehow it can be disconcerting…

  2. I had almost the exact same experience a few years ago. I became FB friends with an acquaintance from high school (I really barely knew him back then, as is the way with many FB “friendships”) and shortly after that he died in a auto accident. His page was flooded with condolences, and his kids posted on it, expressing their grief and loss. Given the tenuousness of our relationship, I felt as if I were barging in on the funeral of a stranger. It was, as you say, odd and disconcerting, to say the least.

  3. Have you noticed where the dead’s Facebook page remains active and people will post messages either not knowing the person is gone. Or, use it as a way of still talking to them. Then, once a year you get the “Wish —- Happy Birthday”. It has to be hard on the family.

  4. I was hospitalized and in rehabilitation, during which I had no access to computers or my mail, for that matter. While I faced serious life changes because of end term kidney failure, my Dutch friend of a quarter century died of cancer.

    When I finally got back home, I went to Facebook to catch up on what friends had been doing during my “medical leave”, and came across an old Paris friend I didn’t know was on Facebook. (There are some who aren’t, believe it or not!) Scrolling through her posts, I learned of my Dutch friend’s death, which occurred the day before I entered the hospital over two months earlier!

    I’d opened a letter from Amsterdam shortly after I got home, and found nothing inside by a photo of my friend, copied in black and white. It seemed odd at the time, my friend was an esoteric fellow, the message intended within his style, but I never guessed it meant he was dead. That was the role of Facebook to bring me up to date.

  5. I have a friend who passed away last August. I’m still unable to remove her from my list. The pain is so raw even now. When memories pop up they are both saddening and disconcerting. Not sure how to cope. You’ve put it so beautifully!

  6. Hello, just followed you, looking forward to having a read of your posts, I don’t know if there is any chance you could read my first blog post I only made my page tonight and I’m looking for some feedback as I’m very new to all of this, thank you,

  7. Yes, this is very relatable. It is very sad too though, seeing those reminders of someone you once loved whose profile is on social media.

  8. This is a great story. So often Facebook brings friends and families closer. It is Facebook postings that I learnt about the death of a great friend and batch mate. It was an awful way to find out but thanks for the update. Facebook also aided me in connecting with a longtime batch mate who I never saw since I left college. He went to England and just the other day he posted a comment on my picture and as I replied to the comment, he called me on Facebook. What a great surprise! Thank you Facebook.

  9. A fascinating thought. We do often compare other people’s facebook/ public lives (their best moments) to our private lives (normal/less exciting moments) which can cause a lot of envy or skewing in how we perceive ourselves.

  10. I have a long cherished desire following g the inevitable death in my life. I want to die smiling looking into the depth of the eyes of my only child for after he comes into my life I had been a living being from a dead one. He gave me a new life to lead with delight.

    1. I think the very thought of death is as soothing as the pleasures and delights of our life. Still we have hope for overcoming the unbound glooms and hazards in this corporal world by the thoughts of death.

  11. condolences given to someone whose dead is something even i haven’t felt comfortable about…. But when i read this blog…. I feel you’re right maybe it’s a way for people to find solace

  12. Like right now. Recent comments are mingling with comments that are over a year old. You could be replying to a dead person and not even know it. Good post, I see the connection between the art and modern social media.

  13. One of my close friends passed away a year ago. I think it is nice to see her profile in Facebook. She was a nice person, the best that anyone can have. her relatives and friends still tag her in their posts just like in their graduation picture, saying: “This was our dream” etc.

    I do not believe that such messages will reach her but still, it makes the memories with her still alive while accepting the fact that she’s gone.

    1. Social media help retaining relations which were almost forgotten but on the contrary over involvement in social media is diminishing our creative world .Where every thing is easy to get there is little room for imagination and a little strive for achievement.

      1. True. =w= Often times, people soaked in Social Media embraces things I do not find amusing or seek something that is not worthy. But we can’t expect people to be the opposite. It’s just how the world is. To change that, the mind must be molded.

  14. Most of my friend keep quiet when they have someone they love past away.
    Most of my friend doesn’t tell anyone when our friend…
    They only left some news on facebook, I wish I could attend their funeral .
    When I realized, it is always too late as I always travel, and could only pray in my heart.

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  16. We have had this recently where a close family member died but people who didn’t know wished her a happy birthday and it’s horrible being the person on the other side of the message having to tell them. Also Facebook make you jump through lots of hoops to have the page turned into a Memorial page.
    Did really make me think about social media and whether it does actually make us happy. It’s like we are slaves to gossip.

  17. Yes… definitely a post that needs to be pondered on… even though I hate that word, ponder. My brother-in-law is in the navy and one of his friends passed away in a routine plane landing. Facebook was quicker than the Navy at delivering the news and the poor wife found out scrolling through Facebook. Talk about a terrifically sad moment. Great post.

  18. Facebook is weird. There’s a guy on YouTube that did a bit where he visited some of his lesser known Facebook friends. In real life! He showed up with the “friend” badge printed out and asked to hang out. It was hilarious!

  19. This is a great post. How true most of us have many a friend on social media that have passed on. I have worried for many a family that will learn of the deaths through social media before being notified first through family. Sadly, society is losing important manners.

  20. Facebook has been a love/hate relationship for me. So much oversharing, but at the same time enjoyment in seeing family and friends too far away to otherwise share physical time with. Taking the good with bad I guess.

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  22. A bright and perceptive post. I’m presently on extended ‘holiday’ from Facebook World, however I was there last year when Mom died. It provided a heartwarming opportunity to share a loving acknowledgement of her life with people who did or didn’t know her. I embraced the technology for that. Last week Dad past. I may well return to that World of family, friends, acquaintances and strangers to share photos and thoughts as well even though Dad never entered that Stream to fish. I was not able to fly from BC to Northern Ontario to attend his memorial celebration of life but once again technology served me. I was there via computers and Skype during the gathering of family and friends as well as on the visit to Mom’s lilac bush planted by the Horticultural Society and then to the family cottage and lake. Dad and my daughter and I were there in the boat in Spirit and via Skype when Dad’s ashes were dispersed. The technology served us again. As for Facebook, I see it as an excellent source of Robot Food- whether ‘junk food’ or things that nurture intelligent evolution. Many thanks for your thoughtful post.

  23. My apologies for my cell phone computer incorrectly correcting my spelling when I said that my Dad passed last week. It decided I wanted to say he past last week. Yes dear computer, he died. The event is now in the past, however the phrase we use to denote that is ‘he passed’. Death is a necessary illusion in our Life evolution as we are Life Energy and that can never die, only transform.

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