Death and Dying on the Internet

I’m back from Collegeville and a fruitful week of writing. I’ve now got a very (very) rough draft for book two, currently titled Spirituality in the Smartphone Age.  It’s a shorter book than Sabbath in the Suburbs, and I’m still planning to publish it via e-book, though a print option will be available. I’ve been in touch with an editor and a friend who does e-book production for a living. This thing will happen.

The final chapter will be about how the Internet has impacted the way we think about death and dying. It’s turning out to be one of my favorite chapters to research and write. Here’s some of the conversation about the topic on Facebook.

One of the cool things about writing a book is that people send you things. Today Dave True, a friend and professor at Wilson College, sent along this post from the Religion and American History blog by Laura Arnold Leibman. Key quote:

In The Hour of Our Death (1987), Philippe Ariès argues that an “invisible death model” has dominated twentieth-century American life.  In this model,

Death’s medicalization distanced the community from the dying and the deceased.  Individualism ruled, nature was conquered, social solidarity waned, and not the afterworld but family ties mattered.  Western society surrounded death with so much shame, discomfort, and revulsion that Gorer (1965) even spoke of a pornography of death.  Death became concealed in hospitals, nursing homes, and trailer parks.  Yet, the death of death remained, a fear corresponding more to people’s social than biological death. 

Accompanying this dispossession of the dying person is a “denial of mourning” and the subsequent invention of new funerary rituals in the United States (Philippe Ariès, “The Reversal of Death,” Death in America, ed. Stannard [1975], 136).  Excessive displays of emotion both by the person dying and those they leave behind are considered taboo and “embarrassments.”  …

What interested my students, however, was the impact of the internet on the “invisible death model.”  Have we entered a new era regarding death and loss?  They noticed in particular three results of the internet.

Check out the post for Leibman’s observations.

And in case you missed it, Katherine Willis Pershey also sent this along–a beautiful expression of solidarity and care for bereaved parents. Their little one spent her entire life in the NICU and they wanted to see her pretty face without the tubes. Members of the Reddit community responded:


I like the middle one, but they are all haunting. And they are all an offering to total strangers, which makes them beautiful.

3 thoughts on “Death and Dying on the Internet

  1. Bob Braxton

    Krista (on Being) – rather, it was Diane Reem – about dying – her husband – stopped drinking water, stopped eating. We are living much longer (older) but also taking a much longer time to die. In the case of a friend who died at 93 – eleven years after moving into a “nursing home.”

  2. Jon Heckerman

    It’s good to, increasingly, read so many obituaries which include the line “She/He died peacefully at home, sorrounded by loving family, friends and pets.” Modern medicine does wonderful things but the hospice movement means so much when it is clear to all that the time is growing near. When the quality of life is no longer there and the burden on others is nearly impossible, I’m glad to see a growing number of physicians recommending alternatives to hospitalization.
    I do think that we need to remember, here in the U.S.A. particularly, that “nursing homes” serve several functions. For some they are places to go to die. For some they are what their name says: places to stay and receive skilled care until recovery takes place. And for others they are places to go and live: places where a healthy diet can be maintained, help can be received concerning hygiene and bodily functions, places where medications will be given as prescribed and monitored and places where friendships and a sense of community are available for those who, for a variety of reasons, would otherwise be primarily alone


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