June 2, 2014 10:00 AM

Social media sites are steadily becoming virtual cemeteries. That's a good thing for the living.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Musician Andy Cornett died on Feb. 24, 2012, after a long illness. We ran in many of the same circles and I knew he had been ill, but that didn't temper the sting of his passing. Andy was only 61 years old at the time and, because he valued his privacy as much as anyone, few knew he had been ailing.  

But a funny thing happened between Andy's birth during the Truman administration and his passing: social media. He still has a Facebook profile. It's active. His daughter regularly posts photos and updates his profile picture.

Andy would have celebrated two birthdays since his death, and each year since, on Nov. 29, friends and family return to Facebook to wish him happy returns or remind him that he is missed. Same for the anniversary of his death. It's a touching phenomenon, and not without precedent: We have always had a need to gather in a place, to remember, to share our grief or raise a glass. Roadside crosses serve this function, as do the proliferations of flowers, cards and stuffed animals near the sites of tragedy. Families purchase death-anniversary ads in newspapers. Now we do it digitally, too.

As with Andy, I had a casual friendship with Griff Blakewood, the brilliant, cool, laid-back environmental science professor at UL Lafayette who was the spiritual force behind saving the Horse Farm from becoming a real estate development. Griff galvanized our community - led by many of his current and former students - to take ownership of that natural treasure, to agitate, to stare down some vested interests including the president of the university that employed him. Without blinking.

He made the transit to the other side - or into the eternal, dreamless sleep (depending on one's perspective) - near the end of May. Griff and I were friends on Facebook, but I didn't know he was close to death until nearly the end. I divined through Facebook that his demise was nigh when, in something akin to hive behavior, the social medium exploded with tributes to Griff in the days leading up to his death.

On Memorial Day he died, and his Facebook timeline became the site of heavy traffic; friends posted photos, anecdotes and memories. As I write this the phenomenon continues unabated.

Facebook's policy is to allow a deceased person's page to serve as a memorial for perpetuity. I can imagine a time, especially now that Baby Boomers have begun embracing Facebook en masse, when the site will be populated with millions of memorials to the dead.

And why not? We need these virtual grave markers - places to go and lay a bouquet or a kind word, to participate in the acknowledgement of our mortality and solemnize this tricky business of being alive. Funerals have always been, ultimately, for the living. So too are these plots of ones and zeroes on the World Wide Web where the digital remains of our friends and loved ones are interred.

It's a damn shame Griff didn't live long enough to see the ribbon cut on the Horse Farm. But I'm sure when that day comes sometime in 2015, many of his friends and loved ones will post photos of the event on his Facebook page and offer a hearty pat on the back: "Attaboy, Griff! Job well done!"


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