Media & Press Archive
The Comfort of Memorial Websites
The Guardian 7th October 2009
Most of the people who left messages this week on online memorial sites, expressing their disbelief, sorrow and grief, had never met Georgia Rowe or Neve Lafferty, the two girls who killed themselves on Sunday night. Only a few hours after the news that their bodies had been found in the River Clyde came through, memorial websites had already been created.
Memorial websites are sites where friends and family members upload photographs, sometimes videos and favourite music tracks, with space for people to leave their memories and messages of condolence. Many sites are not private and can be viewed, and added to, by anyone.
As well as messages that have been left on their profiles at social networking site Bebo, tribute pages for Rowe and Lafferty have been created on other specialist memorial sites, including Friends at Rest, Gone Too Soon, Lasting Tribute. More messages have been left in the comments field of stories about their deaths on local newspapers’ sites.
On Friends at Rest, someone called Karen Peters writes to Rowe: “God bless sweetheart. I didn’t know you that well but I can only begin to imagine what you must have been going through.” And on Lafferty’s page, Jeremy Gibson writes: “You were so young and it was such a tragic end to your life. I was so sorry to hear about your story. I hope you have finally found peace.” Their pictures sit alongside “featured celebrity memorials”. Prominent are Patrick Swayze and Michael Jackson.
The blossoming of memorial websites is a relatively new phenomenon. “I think there were two things that happened,” says Jonathan Davies, who founded memorial site MuchLoved. “The death of Diana brought about a change in how we grieve publicly, and then the internet connected people and provided a place for it. Two or three years ago, when we launched, we were quite unusual.” Now there are lots of host sites, he points out, as well as families and friends starting their own pages.
Davies set up his site, which currently has around 12,000 memorials, in 2007, 12 years after his brother died suddenly at the age of 21. “It was a drugs-related death and I think this was one of the reasons why his friends didn’t get in touch with our family – there was a police investigation, and I think his friends were worried about how we would react, which led to this wall of silence,” he says. “I think that actually made our grieving period worse. I felt a website would have opened up the channels of communication.”
He believes other families gain comfort from memorial sites. “People thought it was a bit morbid, and I suppose in a sense it is, but in a good way. Some people set up memorials very soon after someone’s death – it is a way of coming to terms with what has happened, and a way to express anger and grief and a place for other family members to express condolences. We get a lot set up for young babies, or babies who died at birth, which is a way for parents to create something tangible.”
Does it say something about us as a society, that something so private as grief is now often done so publicly? “I do think grief is becoming embraced more by communities – by that I mean people outside the immediate family. I remember in the mid-90s, when my brother died, people would ignore us because they didn’t know what to say. That’s beginning to change now.”
The popularity of online memorials is probably down to the convenience of leaving a message on a website rather than going out, buying flowers, writing a card and leaving it in a place where other people have done the same, as people did in such massive numbers after the death of Diana or of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham. If our private lives are more public than ever, thanks partly to Twitter, Facebook and numerous other social networking sites, so it is with our deaths.
But is this outpouring of grief, often for celebrities, but also for those in the news, such as Lafferty and Rowe, people the mourners might never have met, actually genuine? “It is, absolutely,” says clinical psychologist Oliver James, “because they are talking about themselves. What is happening is that instead of gaining insight, they are acting out. Instead of properly apprehending their own difficulties, a large proportion of the people who leave these messages are identifying with the difficulties of someone else and emoting. Although the feeling is authentic and truly felt, there is a histrionic dimension to it.”
Much Loved is run as a registered charity, aimed at helping families to set up their own sites, but you can’t escape the feeling that other sites might have more cynical motives. On Lasting Tribute, which is owned by the Daily Mail newspaper group, there is a shop where you can buy personalised candles, benches and jewellery. For £1, you can also leave a virtual “gift” on people’s pages – these include pictures of teddy bears, flags, a pint of beer or a heart. The site set up for Georgia Rowe – which, at the time of writing did not have any tributes, includes a link to the local newspaper’s report on her death. A newspaper owned by the Daily Mail group.
You can get all your printing done – bookmarks, cards, memorial keyrings and magnets – through Gone Too Soon, which also features adverts for holiday cottages and genealogists. Its administrators add tribute pages for celebrities such as Patrick Swayze (which has attracted nearly 500 tributes), and Keith Floyd, as soon as they die. The site encourages people to set up memorials, making it clear that you don’t have to be a close friend or relation. “Don’t think it’s not your place to set up a site. You would not be encroaching on other family members’ territory,” it writes. Proceeds from the virtual “gifts”, also £1 each, contribute to running the site.
The site probably does bring comfort to bereaved families, though it also encourages people to set up pages for pets – which doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with memorials to stillborn babies. Isn’t all this public grieving, and the voyeuristic nature of it, all a bit mawkish? “You could say the same about people walking around graveyards looking at headstones, or leaving flowers at the spot where someone has died,” says Davis. “But as long as it is done in the right way – and a memorial website can be – then it provides a time for reflection.”