Death in the Digital Age

There were no miracles the day that my uncle passed away. If anything, they had been the previous 15 years, two decades or so when he'd been given 5 to live. Cancer drugs sucked, but they'd offered years more for me to get to know my uncle.

He loved science fiction, he wrote an as yet unpublished children's novel, he loved antiques. He collected Minox cameras and 8mm Disney films. He was a chemist, who produced kits to excite kids, like me and my brother, about Science. I think a big part of why my brother is getting his degree in the field is because of my uncle.

I only realized as I walked into the hospital that, when I feared that I had not used the years with him very well, that my uncle Randy, and my aunt, had known how to value time spent together all along, after making it through those first 5 years.



I hadn't even given it much thought. But they knew better. They had treasured the years. The days. The hours, and made sure I did too, even if I didn't look up every time the clock struck looking for the sword hanging over our time.

Like pretty much the rest of human history, humans dealt with death in the only way they could, the way that ants deal with moving mountains - Just one piece at a time.  There, we were just a group of people standing around, stewarding the passage of a loved one, but only a little. Much more, we stewarded each other's grief.

Problem solving is my coping mechanism. The first step of problem solving is problem identification. I stood as prayers and memories were exchanged, and camaraderie gave a little light against the darkness of grief around us. We have the unique displeasure of being so good, as a general species, in our time, at living that death is just that much harder to cope with.

Yet we do, with surprising regularity. I believe, even as I stare down my own grief with denial and distraction, with head shakes and fist slams on the table, that we will go on, and we will make it, and we will remember, but move on. Eventually. I don't claim to be able to see it now.

Instead, it was the other things that I kept myself busy with thinking about. What happens to the bills that my uncle paid online, the E-mail reminders, the phone numbers, the address books, the mailing lists, the event invitations...

Humans have had to handle the pallid corpses of our deceased loved ones for our entire history. For almost that long, their belongings have stayed behind as tokens, treasures, and just, sometimes, trash. The modern world however, leaves us with something different, too: A corpse made of 1's and 0's that does not fit neatly in a casket or inside of an urn or a grave. It is everywhere, a universal web of information about us.

Some of it is vital. The bills, the connections to family and friends. The hard-currency backed 'value' of our social lives and economic ones.

Some of it is tokens that remind us of our loved ones. Pictures from vacation, graduation, greeting cards and birthday wishes. Heartfelt exchanges in the middle of the night while you're thousands of miles apart.

Of course, some of it is just the trash, too. Junk mail, quick requests from co-workers. Chain letters. Spam.

This is what I have been struggling with, the problem that has haunted me because, I don't know that i will get over it. There is, out there, a half million pieces of information, some of it is even valuable, or nostalgic, or sentimental, about my Uncle. The question becomes - How do I find it, and make it accessible to those he left behind? How do I harness the power of the internet to create a lasting memorial of all the things his friends, family, and I loved so much about him?

How do I make sure that his Minox camera's photos are taken and developed?

How do I make sure that his 8mm's are preserved or go to good homes?

How do I leverage the digital world to bring together the people who couldn't be here tonight, who can't fly in for a funeral or memorial service, the people who haven't spoken to him for years but still have that vital spark of information that everyone else will nod, sagely, and appreciate for the value of a shared memory?

I don't know, really I don't. But, right now, I would really like to find out. Starting tomorrow, I'm at least going to look. We'll see what I find.


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