Memetic Mori

Does MyDeathSpace honor or co-opt the lives and deaths of strangers?

Recently, I Googled Jessica to see how the internet has remembered her. Jessica died in 2004, when we were both 14. She was killed in a hit-and-run on Hempstead Turnpike, Long Island’s deadliest corridor for pedestrians. At around 11 p.m. on a Friday night in May, she was leaving a pizzeria and heading to a sleepover with two friends when she was struck in the middle of a road she had crossed countless times. If she had run across the Turnpike a little faster or a little slower, she would still be here, instead of lying inside a silvery-purple coffin, wearing a velour Juicy Couture sweatsuit, six feet under and forever stuck in 2004.

I think about Jessica frequently, even though we were no longer friends when she died. We had gone to school together since kindergarten, and we used to play together at her house on a quiet cul-de-sac, but we grew apart over the years. Still, when Jessica — or, as her real friends called her, Jayy — died, she became a local celebrity: because she died so young and in such a sudden and cruel way, her death rippled outward and affected everyone in our community.

Jessica’s death meant something different for each of us. For me, it was all wrapped up in my parents’ deaths: Jessica had died a few months after my father died of prostate cancer and two years after my mother died of lung cancer. It was just another sign that things couldn’t go back to the way they used to be, that the past was irretrievable, that nothing — not even the lives of my childhood friends — was a given.

“RIP Jayy” was a hashtag before hashtags existed; everyone wrote it in purple, her favorite color, in their AIM profiles, which were then our primary online personae

Jessica’s death was the first I knew that caused an eruption of public grief of the kind I see play out so often now on social media. “RIP Jayy” was a hashtag before hashtags existed; after the hit-and-run, everyone wrote it in purple (her favorite color) in their AIM profiles. Back then, our AIM profiles were our primary online personae. Myspace was founded in the summer of 2003, though it didn’t officially launch until January 2004; it exploded in popularity among teens in November of that year. Shortly thereafter, someone created a Myspace page for Jessica. The pictures on it seem like such relics of the early 2000s: in one, she’s wearing a Von Dutch trucker hat.

I rediscovered that Myspace memorial through MyDeathSpace, a website that bills itself as “collecting the deaths of social networkers since 2005!” — it’s one of the first search results for her name. Jessica’s MyDeathSpace page features an account of her death that appears to be culled, without attribution, from Newsday and Long Island Herald articles. MyDeathSpace includes an active forum for discussing the deaths it features, and as I first read the posts about Jessica, I felt the blood drain from my face. They were written by people who had no idea who Jessica was, with usernames like “MorbidCuriosity,” “super_ghey,” and “FemmeFatality.” People who have paid for premium accounts enabling special article and forum access ($14.95 for a six-month membership, or $49.95 for 20 years) and who have posted, in some cases, upwards of 10,000 times.

“K. Why was a 14 year old out walking on the streets at 11 p.m.? I wasn’t allowed to leave my own room at 14!” wrote pincushionqueen, three years after Jessica’s death. Super_ghey replied, “//look both ways?” MorbidCuriosity posts a picture of Punky Brewster, claiming the two resemble each other. Daybreaksdisdain responds, “Not anymore.”

There are 84 posts like this, blaming Jessica and her parents for her death, blaming her for being struck by a car that never once slowed down or stopped, a car whose driver was never apprehended. I thought about posting a takedown, reminding commenters that people who did know Jessica could see their callous and petty words, and that she was a human being. But from other forum threads, I could see that when people who knew the deceased objected to the dehumanizing tone of the commentary, they were routinely cut down or mocked. Jessica had simply gotten the standard MyDeathSpace treatment, in which posters scavenge online memorials and concern-troll the dead.

MyDeathSpace was initially created as a LiveJournal account, and launched as a website in January 2006 by Mike Patterson, then a 26-year-old paralegal in San Francisco. According to an article from Salon in 2007, “Patterson claims he created the site to teach teens a ‘lesson’ about risky behaviors, especially when it comes to driving automobiles. The idea came to him, he says, after reading about a Bay Area murder in which a man killed his wife and two daughters before committing suicide. He wondered if the two girls had Myspace pages. They did.” MyDeathSpace seems to belong to a tradition that includes everything from true crime shows like 48 Hours, which allege to seek justice for victims by sensationalizing their pain, to the now-defunct subreddit /r/fatpeoplehate, which claimed to promote good health. The moral coating covers up a more perverse allure.

Back when Salon featured MyDeathSpace, there were about 8,000 registered users on the site; now, there are 49,480. Most of the deaths featured are those of young people who have died unexpectedly, and listing a cause of death is a requirement — users won’t draw up an article featuring, say, a Facebook user’s passing until they have discerned how that person died, through updates that Medical Examiner offices post online in some states; information posted on the Facebook profiles themselves (Patterson says that 99 percent of the profiles featured are now from Facebook); online obituaries; and crowdfunding sites set up either before the person’s death, to allay medical bills, or after, to cover funeral costs. Some recent headlines from the site’s article archive highlight a 20-year-old from New Jersey who died after he fell from the roof of his frat house; a 24-year-old who died from a gunshot wound in Oxnard, California; and a 21-year-old from Franklin, Ohio who died in jail of a heroine overdose.

The MyDeathSpace forums look like relics of the early 2000s, complete with signature images and avatars. In a way, they continue a tradition dating from the internet’s more nascent, id-steeped years. Rotten.com, a shock and gore site that made its debut in 1996, thrived through inspiring a combination of outrage, disgust, and compulsive viewing: It was vile, but you couldn’t look away. The site (which is still online, though rarely updated) describes itself as “the soft white underbelly of the net, eviscerated for all to see.” It features images of limbs caught in meat grinders, massive goiters, orange juice enemas, and corpses: dismembered corpses, exhumed corpses, corpses displaying the aftermath of fresh gunshot wounds. In late 1997, the site posted a photo of a bloodied blonde woman amidst the wreckage of a car crash and claimed it was Princess Diana. It wasn’t. Another MyDeathSpace predecessor, the Darwin Awards, launched in 1993 and still somewhat active, describes its purview as “commemorat[ing] individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives.” Earlier this year, they posted about the death of a woman in Virginia who fell from a moving vehicle while trying to secure a king-sized mattress to its roof with her body weight.

The impulse to partake in this kind of information-seeking, or opinion-sharing, is natural. After Jessica died, I cut out all the articles about her that ran in Newsday and saved them

On MyDeathSpace’s forums, as the Salon piece notes, “things get cruel quickly” — users note the “stupidity” of those prematurely deceased, and often belittle friends and family who join in discussions to defend their loved ones. On Halloween, Olivia, a moderator, posted about the death of 20-year-old mechanic from Arkansas. His mother found the discussion, and responded; users made fun of her choice of the word “famine,” when she wrote “This is sad that all you people have to do is famine over someone’s passing.” The MyDeathSpace Facebook page, which has 15,699 likes, features a similarly callous commentariat. On a post about a man who died by suicide while filming himself on Facebook Live, people have commented “pussy,” “shame he didn’t use a tripod,” and “ehh who cares anymore.”

The callousness might spring from a more neutral urge: If you can figure out how a Facebook user died, maybe you can better understand your own relationship with death. One 20-year-old interview subject, in school for forensic psychology, told Salon that she used MyDeathSpace to theorize about deaths that seemed unresolved. “Asked why she thought she or anyone else had a right to pry so deeply and comment on the death of a stranger, Perry admitted this was ‘a good question,’ though she fell short of an answer. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I just like to put my opinion out there.’” This reminded me of a line from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir chronicling the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne: “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.”

Perhaps the people who discussed my childhood friend’s death felt that by voicing their opinions about her supposed carelessness, they were making sense of the senseless. To those of us who knew her, Jessica’s death did feel senseless: a 14-year-old girl struck dead in a split-second. Gathering articles about her death was a way of gaining power over fate, or at least the illusion of power; the impulse to partake in this kind of information-seeking, or opinion-sharing, is natural. After Jessica died, I cut out all the articles about her that ran in Newsday and saved them.

“I believe visitors who only view the death articles and don’t participate on the forum are here to lurk and possibly fulfill their morbid curiosity,” Mike Patterson told me via email, “whereas forum members interact with one another on a closer level. We’ve had certain forum members who have been on the site for nine or 10 years and have forged real-life relationships/friendships/marriages/etc.” When I reached out to some of MyDeathSpace’s highly active users to find out more about their motivations, most either ignored me or told me they “must get permission” from Patterson to answer. The only user who responded to me was daisylane from Melbourne, Australia, who joined the site in March of this year, has a premium account, and has already posted more than 2,000 times. She said that what originally drew her to the site was “morbid curiosity, because no one really speaks openly about death.” To her, MyDeathSpace is “a website, separate from any media bias, where you can see the sheer numbers of gun related deaths, suicides, domestic violence-related incidents, etc … (for instance, we’re seeing a lot of laced heroin deaths, which is a change from the past year).”

The desire to seek out some sort of unvarnished truth, beyond the influence of “media” — that vague, omnipotent, manipulative behemoth — reflects the same cultural current that has brought us hyperpartisan Facebook echo chambers and fake news. It’s a confirmation bias of sorts. The “truth” that MyDeathSpace users are seeking to confirm is one in which death is neither wholly random nor taboo; a “truth” to match an understanding they can live with. MyDeathSpace both quantifies and qualifies death, in a way that death, in reality, resists. You could say that MyDeathSpace puts a face to statistics merely cited by the CDC. But why does it matter how a person died, in the face of all of the things that made them them?

A community formed around understanding death makes sense, and the idea of a “digital graveyard” need not necessarily be perverse, if it’s imbued with respect. We grieve on social media — according to the Digital Beyond, a company that offers services for managing your digital afterlife, an estimated 972,000 Facebook users will die in 2016 — and online memorials on Facebook and elsewhere can be a place to visit the dead as if they were still alive, to scroll through posts about the mundane and the extraordinary. I found myself doing this earlier this year, after my colleague, the poet Max Ritvo, died of cancer at age 25. Visiting his Facebook was a way of accessing his ebullience and humor, and reading the tributes that Max’s friends posted about him felt like participating in a boundless digital memorial service.

Searching for “silver linings” always runs the risk of obscuring the person being abstracted. Grieving respectfully requires awareness that a person, in all their complexity, is not an idea

But even online memorials that seem respectful can risk papering over the painful reality of death. In her piece “The Space Between Mourning and Grief” for the Atlantic this past June, Toronto-based writer Claire Wilmot argues that the seemingly well-meaning platitudes of friends and acquaintances on Facebook can be tone deaf at best, and, at worst, cause the deceased’s family to feel like their own grief isn’t being respected. Wilmot’s sister, Lauren, died at age 20 in March 2015 — she had a rare form of neurological cancer. Many found out about Lauren’s death via a Facebook post by a former high school classmate: “The classmate selected what is perhaps the only picture of the two of them together, and decided to post it on Lauren’s timeline. Beneath it, she wrote ‘RIP’ and something about heaven gaining an angel.”

That first post then set forth what Wilmot called a “cascade of statuses and pictures, many from people who barely knew her … syrupy posts that profoundly misrepresented who she was and sanitized what had happened to her.” Wilmot found that Facebook mourning wasn’t the “outlet for public grief” we might hope it to be. Rather, she writes, “social media often reproduces the worst cultural failings surrounding death, namely platitudes that help those on the periphery of a tragedy rationalize what has happened, but obscure the uncomfortable, messy reality of loss.” The posts mourning her sister were full of redemption narratives and “silver linings,” and Wilmot felt that they were “so far removed from the horror of the reality that I found them isolating and offensive.”

Meaning-making in the face of death is both natural and necessary, but searching for answers, for “silver linings” — for ways of making sense of why and how a person has left this earth — always runs the risk of obscuring the person being abstracted. I realized this at 12, when my mother died and my cousin started calling her “a guardian angel”; I felt it again at 14, when my father died and I was told that he was “in a better place,” with my mother again.

When Jessica died, and our town exploded in public displays of grief, I realized how the desire to make sense of what had happened, and to participate outwardly in mourning Jessica, transformed her from a person to our “purple angel.” The day after the accident, friends and acquaintances and people who hadn’t even known her gathered around a telephone pole near where she was hit and smothered it with a purple-stained tribute to her. The pole remained covered in pictures and Sharpie notes and flowers and teddy bears and prayer candles and helium balloons for days, weeks, months; years later, when the dead flowers and deflated balloons and moldy teddy bears were removed, the Sharpie tags of “RIP Jayy” remained. Even as I attended that telephone pole memorial, I wondered about my place in the grieving hierarchy, and I wondered what her family must have felt. Grieving respectfully in public requires awareness that a person, in all their complexity, is not an idea; it requires realizing that the only sense that death makes is its inevitability.

Kristen Martin recently received an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. She is at work on a collection of essays on her parents’ lives and deaths. Her personal and critical essays have been published in Catapult, LitHub, Guernica, Public Books, the Hairpin, the Toast, the Grief Diaries, and elsewhere. She teaches first-year writing at Columbia University and Baruch College.