Every Place at Once

Where do the dead go when they die?

I am sitting at a memorial service in a church snug in the east end of Singapore. The master of ceremony goes up to the pulpit. He tells us that we will begin with a time of worship. “These were some of her favorite songs,” he says. A screen rolls down. The lights dim. A video plays.

She appears, strumming a mellow song on guitar on that very stage just a few Sundays ago. She was only 23. There she is, cold and silent, lying in the coffin. There she is, warm and tangible, singing onscreen.

There she is, my sister, in two places at once.

No one in the congregation seems to flinch. As neatly as they filed into the pews, everyone stands up and sings along tutti. But it doesn’t take long for the white-lit screens of smartphones to emerge from the sea of heads. “Recording a recording of the deceased leading a congregation onscreen as a substitute for her failure to lead the same congregation at her own funeral,” my inner anthropologist mused internally between heavy sobs and gasps for air. “How meta.”

On the first night, I was too distraught to tend to the hundreds of guests who attended. Nestled in the corner of the main hall, my safe space, I blocked out the rest of the service and scrolled through my sister’s Facebook page.

We are here, alone and with each other and with my sister, where digital footprints boast of our affective ties. You are there in the hall where she lies. We are here where she lives

As expected, dozens and dozens of her friends who had heard the news were posting tributes on her wall. There was the usual confessional prose, heartfelt poetry, and well-wishes embellished with crying emoji and sad Pusheen. There were also streams and streams of throwback photographs lining her page.

“This was the last time we met,” one caption read.

“Remember when we came here to chill and jam? I miss you.”

“This is the only group photo I have of all of us together.”

Pauses. Places. Peoples.

Captions. Capsules. Checkpoints.

Digital artifacts are new vehicles through which we can grieve. Digital traces bear witness of our proximity to the deceased. Digital capsules are encouraging us to convert mundane memories into effusive memorials. Digital, digital, digital. Do they have wi-fi in heaven?

Incessantly refreshing my sister’s Facebook page, I watch as these young 20-somethings collaboratively build a repository of grief and memories around her. But to whom are they speaking, I wondered. To the public? To each other? To themselves? To my sister?

Their outpourings seem directed to everyone yet no one in particular, personal in nature yet publicly on display. Perhaps they see my sister’s Facebook wall as a placeholder for her consciousness? Perhaps they are romanticizing a posthumous her?

There she is, my sister, in three places at once.

I retreat from the intangible two-dimensional world of text to re-enter the heavy sobs of 3-D life. Through my mental fog, I hear the pastor opening the floor for anyone who would like to share a few words. An adult from the church goes up. An adult relative goes up. An adult teacher goes up. They worm their way through the crowd, retrieve the handheld microphone from the pastor, and share solemn wisdom to an unwilling audience. It’s not like any of us want to be here.

I drift between Facebook and the church sanctuary, waiting for time to wile away so all of this would go away. After a lull, the pastor calls for any “young people” who would like to come up to speak. He notes the absence of “young people” in these soliloquies.

Really? The adults don’t see it, but we are here — in confessional prose, heartfelt poetry, well-wishes embellished with a crying emoji and a sad Pusheen, and emotively captioned photographs. We are here. You are there in your seats among anonymous others, attempting to breed collective effervescence while verbally establishing your social ties to the deceased in three lines or less. We are here in our playground, alone and with each other and with my sister, where digital footprints boast of our affective ties. You are there in the hall where she lies. We are here on the internet where she lives. You are there. We are here.

On the second night, I pull myself together to be fully present in the moment, to give my sister her great good send-off. Before the service begins, I see a 50-something-year-old lady in the dining hall. I hear her playing a video recording of the memorial service from the night before. She was precious to my sister. There are tears in her eyes but a smile on her face. “I didn’t manage to absorb anything yesterday,” she tells me. “But now that I have time I can truly experience the moment.”

“Are you going to keep the video?” I ask.

“Yeah. I will watch it every time I miss your sister. Or when I need strength. Now I realize how important all these videos are.”

There she is, my sister, in four places at once.

As I walked away, I wondered why anyone would want to watch a funeral on replay. Why collect such a somber and morbid moment? Why relive the grief over and over? Except, the lady seemed … happy. She archived the last few moments of my sister in the box and on screen, and now she has my sister in her hand, at the click of phone button.

I pictured the lady seated at the foot of her bed with tissues in hand, watching the video night by night until she has exhausted her tears, expended her agony, and processed her grief in full. Everyone at their own pace, perhaps. Why grieve in the fast lane when one can have self-service grieving in your pocket?

Moving through the dining hall, I passed the notice boards bearing photographs of the church youth. I take a cursory glance and spot my sister’s face. I wonder if Facebook is merely digital scrapbooks. Or if the recent resurgence of scrapbooks are merely analog Facebooks. Do people even print photos anymore? I guess some do.

There she is, my sister, in five places at once.

It is 10 minutes until the service begins. I return to my spot and brace myself for another long night. “That one is her sister,” a lady utters. A young man leaves her side and walks up to me. He hands me a letter. He says he is sorry. He shuffles to the front to grab a seat.

Paper. Ink. Handwritten. How artisanal.

I wondered why anyone would watch a funeral on replay. Everyone at their own pace, perhaps. Why grieve in the fast lane while self-service grieving’s in your pocket?

He writes that he settled for a letter because he couldn’t yet bring himself to post on my sister’s Facebook wall. My eyes dart across the lined page. “It would feel too permanent”… “I couldn’t think fast enough”… “I wanted to be more personal”… “I still don’t have the right words to say”… “Just wanna express my condolences”…

An analog Facebook post in my hands? He seemed to suggest that himself.

The service begins, and I feel like dying all over again. I think about all the things my sister would say about the aesthetic of the ceremony. She would hate these flowers. She would love her shoes. She would hate her makeup. She would love the song list. She would hate to see us mourn.

And then I did it. I subtweeted my sister’s memorial service in a WhatsApp group. I invited her closest friends from various walks of life to the group chat and subtweeted her funeral.

“Secret subtwitter. My sister would say this sermon is basically Joey at Monica and Chandler’s wedding. She would say o hai so crowded so hot.”

My partner who was cradling me asks if I know what I am doing. I say I need this for myself. I second guess myself for two seconds until the groupchat responses pour in:

“She would say why y’all crying”

“She rolling her eyes at y’all right now :P”

“Side note, she would find it hilarious if someone did this at the service: [YouTube link of Joey reading Love You Forever.]”

“Yah omg why are her brows so funny? Who drew them? I demand that we redo them!”

“The flowers damn ugly guys???”


“lol is this where the party is at?”

At this moment, I know that my sister made the right friends in life. All of them bore her mark. They were Horcruxes of her. They were Horcruxes for me. We spread out across the service hall, sobbing while pretending to look cool and politely begging strangers for tissue paper. But in the space of our phones, silently typing away, we are invincible, openly disseminating mutual care by co-constructing discursive thought bubbles on behalf of my sister, speaking as if she is here. This is where the party is at.

At some point in the night, one of my sister’s friends sends us customized Telegram stickers of her face. He tells us that she created a set of them bearing different facial expressions. Her friends have been using her face as reaction stickers in their text messages. My heart explodes with joy. The digital anthropologist in me is proud.

There she is, my sister, in six places at once.

It is the morning of the cremation. This is it. I return to the group chat asking for strength. Her friends flood my phone with group photographs, ridiculous memes, affective emoji, and text. Some reminisce, some humor, some love, some pray.

They ask if I can maintain her Facebook account and Twitter feed. They ask if I can preserve her phone line and email accounts. They ask if I can mediate their distress by holding these digital spaces for their grief to unravel as they make sense of loss at such a young age. I promise I will. She would live in everyone’s pockets.

We huddle together by the glass panel. Staff in white shirts wheel out the casket. People begin to wail. It is too much for me to bear. I start sobbing myself. My partner wraps his arm around me. I clutch my phone tighter. “She lives in my pocket,” I remind myself. A man in the back starts to sing “Amazing Grace.” Between sobs and sniffs, people join in. Tutti again. The song overwhelms me, and I can no longer see through my tears. “She lives in heaven,” I convince myself.

There she is, my sister, in every place at once.

Dr. Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and ethnographer who researches internet culture and young people’s relationships with social media, technology, and devices. She is Postdoctoral Fellow with the Media Management and Transformation Centre at Jönköping University and Adjunct Research Fellow with the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University. Reach her at wishcrys.com.