This book explores death in contemporary society – or more precisely, in the 'spectacular age' – by moving beyond classic studies of death that emphasised the importance of the death taboo and death denial to examine how we now 'do' death. Unfolding the notion of 'spectacular death' as characteristic of our modern approach to death and dying, it considers the new mediation or mediatisation of death and dying; the commercialisation of death as a 'marketable commodity' used to sell products, advance artistic expression or provoke curiosity; the re-ritualisation of death and the growth of new ways of finding meaning through commemorating the dead; the revolution of palliative care; and the specialisation surrounding death, particularly in relation to scholarship. Presenting a range of case studies that shed light on this new understanding of death in contemporary culture, The Age of Spectacular Death will appeal to scholars of sociology, cultural and media studies, psychology and anthropology with interests in death and dying.
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Nearly everything that was fleeting or intangible in the pre-digital age is now stored, making it harder for us to forget than to remember for the first time in the history of human memory (Mayer-Schoenberger 2011). The global datasphere generated by digital-era humans has swollen to approximately 33 zettabytes (equal to a trillion gigabytes), and by 2025, the world’s servers are predicted to heave with five times that much (Reinsel, Gantz and Rydning 2018). The information we store is growing at four times the rate of the world economy, with the processing power of computers growing nine times faster. ‘Little wonder that people complain of information overload. Everyone is whiplashed by the changes’ (Mayer-Schoenberger and Cukier 2013:9).
As much as we may feel whiplashed by the breakneck pace, we are both active and passive suppliers of this glut of data. The digital footprint that we now make as we traverse the online world makes a far heftier impression than the one of a mere decade ago, which by comparison seems as scant and brief as personalised tombstone inscriptions in the medieval ‘one’s own death’ period (Ariès 1974). Just like the global datasphere, we have expanded exponentially too. To René Descartes’ being of body and being of mind, we have added a third, a digital being, a res digitalis (Kim 2001). Much of this digital being is comprised of information captured by the surveillance devices that make our environment ‘smarter’ and that track our movements, health, faces, and voices. Even if certain elements of this passively collected information do not seem personal, in aggregate they can reveal an astonishingly intimate and comprehensive picture of a person’s life (Mayer-Schoenberger and Cukier 2013). To assemble this picture, however, one needs big data processes, which more casual observers might not have at their disposal. Instead, what people most often see is the deliberate spectacle of our performative, curated digital personae on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Public relations crises around the use and misuse of our personal data have done little to curb the social media companies’ growth. In 2019, 45% of people around the globe were active users of social media (Chaffey 2019). Even the reputationally beleaguered Facebook remains dominant, having enjoyed a 2% rate of growth in the third quarter of 2019 (Constine 2019). Like other service providers of its type, Facebook’s business model rests upon connecting living users, selling them things, and harvesting and profiting from their data. It did not set out to be mixed-use social networking and digital-cemetery platform. But there is no avoiding the inevitable: no matter how hale and hearty they are upon signing up, 100% of users will eventually die. Facebook may now be an empire of social media, but it will eventually become the empire of death: it could find itself hosting the digital remains of 4.9 billion people by the end of the century, dead profiles having far exceeding living users by that stage (Öhman and Watson 2019). Having failed to adequately plan for the end from the beginning, social media companies are now attempting to catch up, often evolving their policies and practices in response to incident-specific bad press and user backlash about how they have handled deceased people’s data. For example, in 2014, Facebook made significant changes to their policies after a grieving father – who wanted a ‘Lookback’ video to be created for his deceased son – spoke directly to the CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, in an emotional YouTube appeal (Griggs 2014).
Until sufficient, clear, and fit-for-purpose systems evolve for the identification, sorting and disposition of data associated with a deceased entity, it will remain an incontrovertible truth that our res digitalis outlives our physical self. Posthumously persistent social media profiles, formally memorialised or not, are now a common spectacle online, and people’s feelings about this are highly variable. In a 2019 UK YouGov survey, 16% of the 1,616 respondents said that they would like their profiles to remain online and visible to others after death, at least for a time (Ibbetson 2019). A quarter of respondents, however, said that they would like all social media to be deleted entirely at the time of their deaths. This desire is currently inexecutable, in both a practical and legal sense. Even if it were possible, would we seize the opportunity to make provisions for our digital estate when two-thirds of us already fail to make plans for our physical one (Chapman 2018)? The 2017 Digital Death Survey, conducted by the UK’s Digital Legacy Association (2017), revealed that 83% of respondents had made no plans for their social media accounts after death. Personal inaction and the data controllers’ tendency towards retention combine to mean that physical death does not equal digital death. Our personal data is simply too voluminous, too widely spread throughout the datasphere, and too under the control of innumerable third parties to be able to simply gather it up and ‘bury’ it, even if that is what the deceased would have wanted.
If we do not know what to do about that, rest assured that the big technology companies that store and control all these data are flummoxed too, and the posthumous persistence of millions of digital identities is starting to constitute a problem for the companies that host them. A former Google advertising strategist turned philosopher and digital ethicist writes that ‘Many of the systems we’ve developed to help guide our lives … arose in, and still assume, an environment of information scarcity. We’re only just beginning to explore … how [these systems] need to change, in this new milieu of information abundance’ (Williams 2018:16). Systems have not changed much yet, and incidentally and by default, rather than by original mission or intention, social media companies have moved into position as the viewfinder, lens, and frame for death, the backdrop against which contemporary ‘spectacular death’ (Jacobsen 2016) is set.
This chapter will illustrate and argue that posthumously persistent data on social media platforms fuel the contemporary climate of spectacular death, discussing three features of spectacular death as outlined by Danish sociologist Michael Hviid Jacobsen (2016): the mediatisation, commercialisation, and re-ritualisation of death. I will first discuss mediatisation, describing the living’s interaction with the dead on social media. I will then describe how social media companies may commercialise death, focusing on Facebook’s evolving role as a type of ‘funeral director’. Finally, I will critique the practice of memorialising social media profiles, questioning whether this particular re-ritualisation of death is either sustainable or desirable. Some concluding remarks round out the chapter.
Mediatisation – contacting death and the dead through social media
This section further discusses how social media mediate our experience of death and the dead. Throughout cultures and across millennia, we have stayed connected with our dead in various ways, a phenomenon known as continuing bonds (Klass and Steffen 2017). Continuing bonds through the medium of communication technologies is, in fact, not a new phenomenon. In the 19th century, the table-rapping of spirits during Spiritualist seances mirrored the tapping of the telegraph. When photography emerged, so did the ‘spook picture’ industry, producing hoax images in which spirits materialised alongside the sitter(s). Thomas Edison himself hoped to invent a phonograph sensitive enough to capture the voices of the Great War dead, and in modern-day Japan there is a ‘wind telephone’ connected to nowhere that mourners from around the country visit to talk to their dead (see, e.g., Kasket 2019.) Now, it is easier than ever before to experience a connection to the dead using modern communication technologies, for the deceased live in the technology already, situated cheek by jowl with the living. Rather than removing to a separate space, like a designated online cemetery or data heaven, digital shades on social media currently hold their same place within their network of connections, mingling with the living in closer proximity than at any time since Philippe Ariès’ ‘tamed death’ stage, when the graveyard and the ground for goods, services, and entertainments were one and the same space (Ariès 1974). Our 21st-century online society is composed of both the living and the dead, mingling as ‘promiscuously’ as in the early Middle Ages.
Social media have rapidly assumed a special significance for bereaved people. Their role in mediating a particular death starts with death notification, for even the closest relatives may hear the news of someone’s demise via Facebook or Twitter, which are capable of delivering bad news faster than any police department or family-organised telephone tree, and many people do not subscribe to the still-nascent etiquette around the whens, hows, and whos of revealing a death on social media. In the immediate period after a death, social media have practical uses, organising and informing the network about memorials and other arrangements, but primarily they serve as a significant space for tributes and emotional expression, functions that they may fulfil for many years. People almost always speak in the second person to the deceased person themselves (Kasket 2012). As people express themselves about and to the person they have lost, additional drama flares via correctives from self-appointed ‘grief police’, who weigh in about who is entitled to feel sad, how this sadness should be expressed, and even whether the deceased can hear them – in essence, telling people to stop making unseemly spectacles of themselves (Gach, Fiesler and Brubaker 2017). Grief policing is an example of the tensions and uncertainty that can arise when highly local conventions around grief collide on a global, visible stage. As people continue to post photos and describe their memories, they negotiate what Tony Walter (1996) calls the durable biography, a picture of the deceased person that the community of mourners can comfortably carry forward as they grieve and remember. This process used to happen at the funeral home or wake, presided over by the physical deceased person, and it still does; however, on a once-living person’s social media account, the community forms a durable auto/biography, significantly contributed to by the digital footprint the deceased person made themselves. People without access to a social media account in the wake of a death, which may include members of older generations like parents and grandparents, may feel acutely isolated from the community of mourners, shut out of the virtual memorials (Bassett 2018).
What explains the ongoing attachment to, and interaction with, posthumously persistent social media profiles, which bereaved people describe as being the last bit of someone that feels really real (Kasket 2012)? Without question, the multimedia vividness of these particular digital artefacts may have much to do with it, but it may also be partly down to the fact that these are co-constructed entities, representing and capturing the interaction and hence the relationship that existed between the deceased and the bereaved person, not just the deceased in isolation. The most richly developed profiles of erstwhile active social media users may seem, to those who knew the person in life, to contain an essence of their humanity (Bassett 2020). Just as in the romantic period of ‘thy death’, for many, these profiles constitute the sacrosanct ‘tombs of our dear ones’ (Ariès 1974:72), sites of ongoing visitation and veneration. Accessibility is also key; the dead are in our very palms, our smartphones serving as portable cemeteries as well as mobile-emotive devices, which Kathleen Cumiskey and Larissa Hjorth (2017) describe as having multiple affordances when it comes to managing emotions in the face of grief. Paradoxically, our phones can trigger emotion and help us process it more deeply, or they can provide the distractions and entertainment that blunt our sadness and sense of loss.
Social media platforms like Facebook are also experienced as a kind of medium that gives one access to the inhabitants of the afterlife, a conduit through which the bereaved can communicate directly to the deceased and experience themselves as being heard (see, e.g., Kasket 2012). This belief that messages sent via social media reach the deceased might seem like a kind of death denial, although research participants certainly express no belief that the deceased is not actually gone. It could be argued that for digital natives in particular, however, the illusion is understandable. In the terminology of the sociologist Marc Prensky (2001), anyone born before around 1985 is a ‘digital immigrant’, but anyone who arrived into the world after that year can be considered a ‘digital native’ who has grown up with digital technologies. People who have always known email and instant messaging have never experienced lack of proximity as a barrier to instantaneous communication. For them, to send a communication into the ether is to assume it will be received, even if there is no direct visual or auditory confirmation. It seems understandable that this felt sense, this article of faith that one’s messages will be heard, would not simply dissolve upon the physical death of one’s correspondent, especially when their digital presence is still occupying the same online spaces it always did.
On the other hand, perhaps we should not mistake our proximity and exposure to digital remains for a closer acquaintance with death itself, which brings us to the question of whether social media’s mediatisation of death more closely resembles ‘tamed’ or ‘forbidden’ death. When we see memorialised profiles on social media, we may indeed be exposed to the truth of others’ mortality and perhaps more connected to the eventual reality of our own. Yet, we do not experience these entities as we would corpses. When the online dead decompose, as they eventually do, we do not witness fleshly deterioration, like the rotting cadavers and the flayed bones of medieval memorials. Digital remains may gradually break down before our eyes, but they do so silently, cleanly, through a thousand tiny cuts of a data loss here, a broken link there, the cull of a deceased person’s account. On social media, the dead confront us everywhere, but in anodyne form, preserved in odourless binary code and viewed at a remove, through the tempered glass of our devices’ screens. They appear more as semblances or echoes of life than as something truly dead.
wrote Ariès (1974:88–89). He was speaking about the medicalisation of death in the ‘forbidden death’ stage of the industrial revolution, but it applies just as easily to the current age of ‘digital zombies’ on social media (Bassett 2018). Their persistence has made death even more of a stepwise process, perhaps not complete until the digital traces – and hence the soci...
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Citation styles for The Age of Spectacular Death
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2020). The Age of Spectacular Death (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1645868/the-age-of-spectacular-death-pdf (Original work published 2020)
[author missing]. (2020) 2020. The Age of Spectacular Death. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1645868/the-age-of-spectacular-death-pdf.
[author missing] (2020) The Age of Spectacular Death. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1645868/the-age-of-spectacular-death-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. The Age of Spectacular Death. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.