As part of BBC Radio’s ‘Forest 404’ – a sci-fi thriller set in the 24th Century in a world where forests have been erased from history – I listened to a talk ‘Death in the Digital Age’ by Katie Thornton – researcher, public historian, and audio storyteller. I found it intriguing.
Previously to remember the dead one might do something – open a photo album or visit a cemetery (a public library of stories) or acknowledge an anniversary. This still happens but now – much more unbidden – social media can present us with the past. Facebook pages can be marked with the word
‘Remembering’ above the name of a person who has died. There are over 50 million (yes, I was surprised) ‘digital graves’ or memorials on Facebook now. The page becomes a type of shrine in the
‘Cloud’. These ‘Clouds’ are buildings and buildings with corridors and more corridors full of wiring,
flashing lights and servers – ‘cemeteries of the digital age’. As there are environmental limits to these data centres in terms of electricity and carbon dioxide, there are issues emerging about their sustainability and thus who controls these digital legacies. We’re used to shrines, spontaneous ones at road fatalities are possibly the most common.
At a chaplaincy conference this week, I heard that in Cardiff there is Ianto’s Shrine. It is a large wall and covered in messages and tributes. It began spontaneously in 2009 and it is still there; indeed it is a Cardiff landmark. Why this is interesting is because Ianto is a character from Torch-wood (a spin off from Doctor Who). It seems we can even grieve for literary deaths.
I wonder how much the grief and memorialising we feel when someone dies is shaped by our
belief about reality in terms of death and what lies beyond death. At our British Museum tour we
were reminded how brutal life could be – how frequent death was – and how interlinked was this
world and the afterlife. Proper preparation in this world was required for the next world – maybe
supplying food and supplies for the journey in the afterlife. If you had servants or soldiers or attendants or even family to accompany you then they, too, could be killed so you would all journey together. From pets to grandparents, fictional characters to the loves of our lives, death is traumatic and wrenching because of loss – the unique place the deceased held in our life is now empty. And the sense of loss is generated by the strength of the relationship severed.
It is also impacted by our belief in an afterlife which definitely shapes our own living. The teaching of Purgatory in Roman Catholicism has definitely shaped people’s lives, as does Samsara in the religions of India, and Jihad in Islam. Atheism’s view of an afterlife impacts how atheists live.
The Easter season in Christianity tells us not to be afraid and to have peace. In this most harrowing of times we are directed to Jesus. All religions offer hope and comfort and they need to be assessed, critiqued, and evaluated – just as you would do for anything that is supposed to help you. That is why Jesus is so important and everyone should consider him. Who else makes claims to be the resurrection and the life and who has defeated death’s power to make each death permanent? His empty tomb gives a clue! Anyone who says such things is either delusional, cruel and evil, or telling the truth!