Figuring Out How to Mourn in the Age of Skype

Do religious traditions still provide a good map for grieving?

On my final day in the United Kingdom, I took one last walk through the courtyards of my college at Cambridge. Its walls were the remains of a medieval abbey, some of the oldest operational buildings on campus. At its center, a green courtyard filled with jonquils gave way to a high brick wall split by a narrow arch, through which stood the heavy, dark door of my dissertation supervisor.

Given the hours I’d spent on my master’s dissertation—a long slog on Reinhold Niebuhr and Saint Augustine—I knew that door better than any other on campus. I couldn’t pass it by without knocking on the old wood and poking my head inside for a final time.

I was fortunate: John, my supervisor, was in. As the college’s chaplain and a much-beloved instructor, his days were usually booked tight with church duties and teaching appointments, but I happened to catch him at his desk that spring afternoon, squinting against the sunlight as he typed something up. Engrossed as he was, he still smiled when I called out to him from the open doorway.

Sorry, I said, I just wanted to say goodbye. I’m headed out today.

Is it today? John asked, and stood to meet me at the door. For a moment I thought he was going to shake my hand, which seemed like an oddly formal gesture for someone I’d spent the past nine months studying with, often late into the evening.

We both hesitated a little, trying to shape a suitable farewell out of my typically American effusiveness and his patently English subtlety. I said I would email him all the time, more than he’d like. He said he would see me soon enough at an upcoming conference. I stumbled through all sorts of thanks, increasingly blubbery and emotional, which John managed with modest reassurances that it really wouldn’t be long at all before we’d meet again. It all culminated in a hug, which felt more symbolic of my growth at Cambridge than, say, the submission of my dissertation. The warmth of it soothed most of the ache of leaving as I crossed under the ancient iron gate of my college for the last time.

* * *

Less than a month later John was killed in a car accident. He was 35.

I learned of his death on a sunny Monday morning in Texas, when I awoke to a flurry of emails and Twitter notifications. It had happened on a Sunday evening. Two others were with him. They survived. These facts are seared, short and blunt, into my mind.

That morning, I sat alone at my kitchen table with a collection of digital facts and emailed consolation, the world around me as wordless and noisy as the roar inside a shell. When I told my family what had happened, they felt sorry for me, but none of them had ever so much as seen John. They knew about his role in my education, but they didn’t know who he was.

Nor did anyone else around me. People on the street carried on, jogging and walking their dogs, pushing their kids in strollers as though they hadn’t felt the lurch in the Earth. An ocean away, there were people as shaken as I was, heartsick and unsteady, dizzied by the brutal suddenness of loss. But I couldn’t see or hear or touch them, which is actually a pretty important part of traditional Christian mourning.

Or, at least, it’s been that way historically. Before the age of global mobility, mourning happened mainly in local communities, among people who shared a proximity to the deceased and to one another. The catechism of the Catholic Church describes funerals as efforts to create “communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community.” In other words, these ceremonies are partly about remembering the dead, but they’re mostly about providing strength to the living.

This affirmation of community life and community mourning is echoed throughout prayers and Bible verses that deal with death and solace. Prayers for the dead are consistently phrased in the plural, to be spoken in unison:

Lord, for those who believe in you,

Death is the end of poverty, and the beginning of riches,

The end of pain, and the beginning of joy;

The end of weakness, and the beginning of strength.

Do not let grief overwhelm us, or loss embitter us.

But out of our sadness let joy arise for so much given to us.

Cast out our fears and do not let our hearts be troubled or afraid.

In love and trust we commend to you John,

Whom you have called out of this mortal life …

Even in text form, this prayer seems to unfold in an echoing chorus of voices, diverse in accent and inflection. It conjures images of the low-hum and bent-neck posture of communal prayer—which is not always particularly comfortable, but nearly always moving. The individual bleeds together with the community, and the one voice gains strength from the many.

The prayer for eternal rest suggests that humans pass from one community to another:

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,

And let perpetual light shine upon him.

May he rest in peace, Amen.

May the soul of John and the souls of all the faithful departed

Through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

No matter whether you’re in heaven or on Earth, the prayer seems to say, there isn’t much of a place for a single mourner praying alone. These verses tend to fall into three categories: lamentation, supplication, and gratitude—or, to put it roughly, cries, requests, and thank yous. You can probably lament alone. Supplication is harder; it usually represents an attempt by the community of the living to reach out to the community of heavenly saints. But gratitude is the hardest. Without a community to mourn in, it’s hard to look in someone else’s eyes and say with total certitude that you were glad to have known him, because those around you will never know what his laugh sounded like, or that you could know him at a hundred paces from his gait. Grieving at a distance means sharing your pain with people who have only an abstraction in mind, less than a memory, less than a ghost.

* * *

And yet, more and more people will probably have to mourn alone at some point in their lives. As of 2010, roughly 3 percent of the world’s total population lived outside their country of origin. Many migrants maintain strong and hopeful ties with their home communities, but they may not be able to return to mark a death. And then there’s the reality of global travel: More than 283,000 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2011–12 school year, for example. Although these patterns haven’t reached all corners of the world, globalization is here to stay—especially in the United States. Even people who don’t consider themselves Christians will have to figure out new ways to navigate this rite—especially in America, even secular traditions have tended to mimic religious ones.

The people we know, in other words, don’t necessarily have any immediate geographical or cultural ties to us, which means a lot of traditionally community-based activities are being upended. Many possible solutions still seem weird: Fortunately, Skyping into a funeral is not yet socially acceptable. Then again, the trappings of mobility—devices that go with us everywhere, that often diminish closeness while also closing unimaginable distances—are pretty useful when it comes to mourning in modernity, whether you’re actively religious or not.

After all, the web is fundamentally a vessel for collective memory. Immediately after I got the news of John’s passing, memorial threads appeared on Facebook; articles on various news sites joined them shortly. In comments sections, narratives began to emerge: One person would post some memory of him, and another would echo it, slowly developing a kind of crowdsourced recollection. Photos followed, along with rudimentary memorial ideas: The instantaneousness of online chatter allowed a few fellow theologians to plan to dedicate an upcoming publication to John’s memory. Unlike hardbound books of remembrance left open at funerals, these memories won’t ever be shut up and put away. The internet lasts forever—which is usually a creepy warning, used to warn teenagers against oversharing on social media, but in this case, it facilitates mourning at its best. It’s hard to be a member of the first generation of online mourners, because there’s no book to tell you how you should act—something that’s usually a huge comfort in times of loss. But although you might miss the comforting physical closeness of an in-person funeral, you can wake up at any time of the night and see the threads of online love and memory that accompany a modern death.

Which is, admittedly, a cold comfort. When I prayed for John, I prayed as me, which is a lonely kind of grieving. But the immediacy of writing online also lets me share what I knew about this great human with those who never knew him. It isn’t the same, and it doesn’t soothe like a shoulder to cry on, but it’s one way for a student to give thanks to a truly superlative teacher.

More and more, it seems the life well lived will be preserved online. This is especially true in the world of ideas: Bloggers now openly consider academic texts that once would have remained confined to the university, allowing scholars to leave a much broader legacy. And in Facebook conversations and online comments sections, thinking happens in real time. Taken together, these new, permanent, public memories leave us with more than the hard-copy facts of the past: Unlike the birth certificates, baptismal records, and diary entries of old, the vastness of online communication leaves behind a richly detailed, informal story of a life lived among others. This is an especially fitting tribute to a theology professor: This new, chatter-filled process of crystallizing his memory isn’t a full substitute for in-person religious rites, but it offers a similar sense of regularity, community, and permanence.

Or, at least, it’s a faint form of feeling better, one that I’ve found some gradual peace in.