#Funeral and the Memento Mori

In ‘#Funeral and Instagram’ Martin Gibbs and his fellow writers use the funeral hashtag on Instagram as a means to explore attitudes towards and rituals surrounding death in the age of social media. In a dataset of 1,330 images in the funeral hashtag they find a number of common themes for these funeral-related photographs. Though the article is somewhat short on concrete conclusions, it does raise a number of interesting points, particularly with relation to the question of the sequestration of death itself.

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#funeral. Illustration by Shauna Colgan

Gibbs et al. feel that the shortage of photographs of the dead body is indicative of the sequestration of death in Western society (260), with the dying removed to hospitals or hospices and the dead to funeral parlours (256). While this is certainly an interesting perspective to take, I feel examining they may be missing the mark. Yes, there has been a move to remove the dead and dying from the position in daily life which they once held, however a multitude of factors have likely contributed to this other than discomfiture implied in the article. Not least amongst these factors is the time and expertise required for looking after the dead and dying, and hence there is a sense that they are best left in the hands of professionals. Extending this idea of the sequestration of death to the lack of photographs of corpses in the funeral hashtag is, I feel, a reach.

Gibbs et al noted that the settings of funerals were  prominent in the dataset. Illustration by Shauna Colgan
Gibbs et al noted that the settings of funerals were prominent in the dataset. Illustration by Shauna Colgan

The dataset used for ‘#Funeral and Instagram’ revealed a focus on the people left behind after death as opposed to on the deceased person. This was evident in the abundance of selfies or group shots – 485 images – as well as the number of photos surrounding the event of the funeral and its materiality – 377 images (259). The abundance of images not of the deceased person is indicative of a shift away from the old cultural practice of photographing a deceased person as a memento mori. This is an issue which Gibbs et al. does not dwell on. Yet, within the context of the article and the idea of the sequestration of death it is an issue which needs to be examined, especially since Gibbs et al. are inclined to ascribe it to this sequestration. However, I feel it is indicative of a cultural shift other than an increased discomfiture with death. The memento mori, or the practice of photographing the deceased as a memento, originated in the Victorian Era in a time when photography was expensive. After death was, for many people, the only time they may ever be photographed, and so the memento mori served as a physical reminder of the deceased. Now, however, photography is ubiquitous and the functionality of the memento mori has been lost. This is, I feel, the reason for the focus of the funeral hashtag to be on people and things other than the deceased – in the modern era in the Western world the memento mori as it was has ceased to exist, and so in terms of death the spectacle of the funeral has taken its place.

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Requiescat in Pace. Gibbs et al. also carried out a small amount of analysis on #rip on Instagram. Illustration by Shauna Colgan

In conclusion, Gibbs et al. have produced a fascinating paper which throws up more questions than it necessarily answers. Though it is lacking in concrete interpretation for the trends noted, it does provide scope for further examination and comparison. While I feel that the photographic shift in focus demonstrated by Instagram away from the deceased is indicative of the ubiquitous nature of photography and loss of functionality of the memento mori, it may also be argued that this is reflective of a move towards self-centredness and a desire for popularity amongst society as a whole. However, that is definitely an argument for another time!

Works Cited

Gibbs, Martin et al. ‘#Funeral and Instagram: Death, Social Media, and Platform Vernacular’. Information, Communication & Society 18.3 (2015): 255–268. Taylor and Francis Online. Web.  25 November 2016.

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