Mourning in the Digital Age: The Evolution of Online Memorials

UPDATED June 2024

Picture of Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC

Senior Contributing Editor

Memorializing those who have died has been part of our culture for generations; we will always experience death and dying. However, how we memorialize our lost loved ones has evolved significantly with the advent of the digital age. Memories of the deceased are preserved in digital formats and not simply locked away in a box of photographs. 

Mourning in the Digital Age The Evolution of Online Memorials

Unlike diaries or photographs, which are kept in the possession of a few mourners, online memorials are shareable with anyone and accessible anytime. Additionally, online communication can be less inhibiting or awkward than face-to-face communication [1].

In our modern society, online memorials and remote access to funeral services offer appropriate opportunities for closure in our contemporary world. This article will provide an overview of the evolution of online memorials and how we can utilize these tools in our grief processing. 

Traditional Mourning Practices vs. Digital Mourning

Since the birth of the internet in the 1980s, our culture has experienced an overall shift towards utilizing online platforms for memorializing our loved ones. In years past, a relative, friend, or partner would pass away, and we would have tangible objects serving as reminders: photographs, journals, and other tokens of remembrance. However, even these mementos are only viewable by people who possess them.

Digital mourning is a newer phenomenon that some people could find troubling because of its unfamiliarity. But for many, these spaces have become a valuable tool for coping with loss, with ways to grieve that transcend traditional ideas of “letting go” and “moving on.”

Digital mourning offers specific advantages while being vastly different from traditional mourning practices in some ways. This section will explore comparisons between the styles of mourning:

Traditional Mourning Rituals

  • Physical presence and in-person comfort – Mourners can collectively offer condolences, share memories, and provide mutual support while grieving.
  • Cultural and religious customs – Funeral attendees can practice rituals and traditions important to the departed.
  • Tangible memorabilia – Mourners may exchange sympathy cards or mementos to express condolences and commemorate the deceased.

Digital Mourning Rituals

  • Virtual communities – Mourners can connect with others globally, transcending geographical boundaries and time zones. 
  • Accessible memorials – Memorials become permanently accessible online, including obituaries, tribute videos, and digital guestbooks.
  • Asynchronous participation – Mourning rituals can occur anytime, allowing flexibility in expressing condolences and sharing memories without time constraints.
  • Creative expression – Various multimedia formats (photos, videos, music, and written messages) allow mourners to personalize tributes uniquely.

The age of the grieving person is meaningful. A 2015 Funeral and Memorial Information Council (FAMIC) study found that younger adults have different expectations when making funeral arrangements than older generations. Approximately 39% of study participants aged 20-39 said they would attend a virtual memorial compared to 26% of those aged 40 and older [2].

Evolution of Online Memorials

The “Internet Era” has changed how people grieve. Since the emergence of the internet, access to information for the everyday consumer is constantly evolving–we receive news updates at warp speed. With smartphone access, anyone can create a URL or social media post for memorializing a lost loved one. What started with simple online obituaries has changed over time as technology has evolved.

Online memorials began with simple tribute websites and guestbooks, allowing friends and family to share memories and condolences. Nowadays, social media’s influence has expanded the landscape of digital mourning dramatically.

Facebook and Instagram, popular social media platforms, have become integral to the grieving process, offering new ways to provide mutual support. Social media profiles often serve as digital “shrines,” preserving a person’s legacy in perpetuity and providing a space for ongoing mourning and reflection while keeping the deceased person “alive.”

Impact of Technology on Grief Processing

Online spaces, such as social media pages and various grief forums, allow friends and family of loved ones to navigate grief collectively but from the comfort of their homes. Talking to people online can also create space for open, uncensored self-expression that can help with grief.

Having more access to media and technology offers plenty of advantages, including the following:

Advantages of Digital Mourning

  • Digital memorials provide a lasting tribute to deceased loved ones and are accessible to future generations
  • Allows for the full extent of grieving without worry about appearances
  • Allows people who could not attend funerals to engage in a ceremony or acknowledgment of death–to process and gain closure in their way and on their terms
  • Allows people to watch a service or read memorials when they are ready 
  • Mourners can avoid tension among those who manage their grief in different ways

Digital mourning and online memorials are now becoming the norm, but not without criticism. The following are some of the potential downsides:

Disadvantages of Digital Mourning

  • Intimacy and emotional depth may be lacking without face-to-face encounters, leading to a sense of detachment
  • Sharing personal grief online can raise privacy and security issues
  • Not all individuals can access or understand digital formats, limiting their ability to participate
  • The shift towards digital mourning may result in the loss of cultural and religious customs

Community and Connection in Digital Memorials

The formation of virtual communities for online memorials is a clear example of how the internet can facilitate connections and support networks in grief and remembrance. Digital platforms are powerful tools for connecting people, facilitating emotional support, and preserving the memories of those who have passed away.

Virtual communities around online memorials allow individuals to express their grief openly and find support from others experiencing similar emotions. People may offer words of comfort, share stories that bring solace, or simply listen to those who are mourning.

Conclusion

The evolution of online memorials has shifted how we remember and honor the departed. These platforms offer new opportunities for collective mourning and historical preservation. Navigating the intersection of technology and remembrance can be challenging but possible as digital mourning methods evolve mindfully. 

Online memorials have undoubtedly become an integral part of the mourning process for many individuals. Whether through a heartfelt post on social media or a dedicated memorial website, the digital age has provided new avenues for us to grieve, heal, and remember those we have lost.

References

  1. famic_dev. (n.d.). FAMIC Study. Funeral and Memorial Information Council. https://www.famic.org/
  2. ‌Bell, J., Bailey, L., & Kennedy, D. (2015). “We do it to keep him alive”: bereaved individuals’ experiences of online suicide memorials and continuing bonds. Mortality, 20(4), 375–389. https://doi.org/