The distorting lens: Internet Yearbook Funeral

On this morning’s friends list scan I saw mention of the death of someone I don’t know. He was far too young and a lot of people liked him, and it’s a sad mess. Looking around to see what kind of person he was, I got to a thread on his local web forum.

Most of it was either just “oh god that’s awful” on some level, or memories of the guy that made me wish I’d met him, which I’m sure was the intent. Also some good pictures of him, and some references to how difficult his life had been in some ways. So all of that was ordinary and appropriate, and I certainly got an appreciation for him.

The odd part was that, since it was on one of these typical phpbb type forums, everyone had their wacky .sig files with graphics and catchlines still included. So there was the expected and very sad “Oh God no I wish I had seen you before” stuff and then a .sig like “rm -Rf . The world is 98% full, delete anyone you can”.

I’ve seen threads like this before and found them equally jarring, with things like explicitly Christian wishes for a happy afterlife with Jesus right above gothy sex vampire graphics, etc. I found them both very “Internet” and somehow familiar, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint why until I’d thought a bit.

It’s the teenager funeral. You know, some poor kid crashes her car or commits suicide and it’s just awful, and then at the service her friends all show up in club gear or gang attire, and they want to play her favorite Revolting Cocks song or pour out some peppermint schnapps on the ground, and the older people are outraged or just completely puzzled. Sometimes the “kids” have their own wake for the departed, often unfortunately engaging in the same behavior that offed their friend. And there’s frequently a memorial shrine of some kind now, and not just if the kid has perished in a road accident. Going by high schools and colleges I occasionally see a small mountain of flowers with sad notes and a photo on it, but almost always also some chunks of pop culture like CDs or lifestyle stuff like a bottle of booze or a pack of Marlboros.

When my friend L. died at 27 of a brain tumor, the service had this huge divide. All the “straights” were there, and her family was very straight: Orange County Republican, engineer dad, lawyer mom, engineer brother, lots of wealthy white people in tasteful black. And her friends were there: an art mob of gay men, media Jews, art atheists, and rebel esthetes. Her parents and their friends eulogized her in a conventional way, talking about her singing talent and how strong she was in death, both of which were true and moving. And her friends got up and told a comic story about shoplifting with her and almost getting caught by the cops. The straights were enraged and horrified, because L.’s cheerfully sociopathic personality and her campy, rebellious friends weren’t respectable.

The Internet message board memorial is a young person’s place right now. So, it’s the teenaged roadside memorial and wake, full of slangy pop culture and kid lifestyle references like the ball cap at the gangsta funeral. I wonder what it will be in ten years? The question to me is whether Teenage Nation will just keep being teenaged, or whether we’ll start memorializing our friends in more conventional ways even in this medium.

In some ways it’s touching and appropriate to see the “kids” talking about how they’ll miss their friend while wearing Stripper Nouveau outfits, and seeing them lovingly put 50 Cent CDs and bongs around the makeshift shrine. It reminds us that when young people die, they die unformed and childish, and it’s terribly sad. We have a problem in this country with staying teenaged, though. It’ll be an awfully odd thing if we’re still posting our goodbyes on the forums of the future with yearbook-style catch phrases and fan graphics attached.

Mainly, though, I’m sad this guy killed himself. It looks like he was damn cool, and it’s a terrible shame.

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