Facebook, Public Mourning, and Virtual Graveyards


Yesterday I found out that one of my friends and ex-lovers in Denver, John passed away. What a strange thing it is to be able to publicly tag a dead person on Facebook. I have mixed feelings about doing so, and about discussing John’s death at all. John wasn’t always a big talker. I doubt I wrote as much to him on here in the time we were friends and while he was alive as I am now. I don’t know what to think about virtual mourning. The whole narcissistic architecture of Facebook seems kind of gross in the face of death. The platform has none of the intimacy of a quiet, fleshy memorial, and I’m not sure yet what the social-ritual function of likes may be when it comes to honoring the departed. But John’s Facebook page has already become a space of commemoration – friends and family sharing pictures and recollections, pouring out love and gratitude for the kind of person John was, for the unaffected gentleness and warmth that he exuded with each of those goofy grins that he gave himself over to so completely. And yesterday morning it felt natural to write on John’s wall as soon as I read about his passing, to reminisce about how we met, how during my first Winter living in Denver he used to walk over to my apartment in the early hours of the morning from the kitchen of the Japanese restaurant he was working at three blocks away, to talk, to drink whiskey and spend the night. John and I slipped in and out of each other’s lives, but I always liked seeing him. Still, as much as I loved his company, our relationship was sometimes awkward, clumsy. It felt like we were often out of step with each other, that we were never quite sure about each other. I’m not even sure now I ever saw John in the daytime, and there was a time my friends thought I’d made him up. It was like our interactions couldn’t stand anything but the episodic, and didn’t fit the crowdedness of daylight. Once I made John dinner at around 1am at my house after I finally got back home after I’d taken the wrong bus back from Boulder after work only to fall asleep and end up all the way at the airport. A friend called me from South Africa on Skype and I started chatting while I cooked. John went outside to smoke a cigarette but never came back. “I thought you didn’t want to talk to me,” he said later when I called him, as the dinner I’d made him grew cold. Our libidos and our social styles didn’t match. It seemed like we often missed each other. John and I probably wouldn’t have made good boyfriends and I didn’t try to date him, but I loved him, and cared about him, even if he may not have thought so, even if he slipped so often out of my life for extended periods, even if he thought he’d somehow failed to grab my interest. More than once John asked me to teach him magic – he wanted to see ghosts with me. Instead of showing him ghosts, I talked to him about focus, training, spiritual discipline. He thought I didn’t want to share that with him, that I thought he somehow wasn’t smart enough for dealing with spells and spirits. He seemed to yearn to get beyond himself, though he was one of those people who was best when he planned little and didn’t try to go anywhere at all. Maybe that’s why John was both so great to spend time with and why he fell out of my and some other people’s lives so easily.

John was fascinated by the curtained altar closet in my old Denver studio, so it seems ironic now that I lit a candle for him last night in the Western quadrant of my latest altar, this time in my bedroom apartment in North India. Just before I prepared to pray and make offerings I remembered that years ago John had left a beautiful necklace in my bed, which he asked me to return, but which I never got around to giving him, partly because I liked it so much myself. I guess I selfishly wanted to keep it, and maybe on some level, wanted to keep him too, wanted to make sure that even if he disappeared for months I could bring him back, to sit with him and puzzle through the bonds between us. After calling on and offering to my Holy Guardian Angel, ancestors and other spirits (yes I do these things) I prayed that John have a fearless passing, that whatever parts of him we might think of as remaining might recognize their nature, be unburdened and at peace. I bathed his necklace with incense, sprinkled it with blessed salt and water, poured libation for him and his ancestors, recited prayers and mantras. I’m not an expert at death rites and I have few of my usual ritual supplies but it felt right to do whatever I could, to wish that any unnecessary ties and burdens from this life of John’s be dissolved, to finally return John’s necklace to him, to wish him the freedom and blissful transcendence he seemed to often wish for himself.

Facebook is as much of a makeshift altar as this one. It also brings together sometimes too many different spheres, and strange interlocutors. Here in India, I can only honour and mourn John virtually, but on reflection, there’s no other way. In the end, our offline relationships are equally virtual – in ‘real life’ our experience is just as virtually mediated through the prism-prison of our nervous systems, we are equally caught up in games of revelation and concealment. We busy ourselves with impression management, we seek approval and work just as hard at persona crafting. We mutually dream each other, partially, episodically, by day and by night, on and off the screen, and do our best to splice snapshots of memory and feeling into a reel of continuity and meaning.

Not a lot of people knew about my relationship with John. I don’t completely know why I feel like sharing this. I guess it feels like John deserves it. Endings lend a weight to prior events, open-ended details become part of a narrative, get a fullness and order they never had before. I’m talking too much again. When my phone died last night as I was typing this and John’s candle burned, I felt a rush of deep despair for missed connections, sudden breaks, unfinished business. This morning my phone has come back to life again, John’s candle has burned down to nothing, and I’m still talking too much. John was a special person. I’ll miss him.


2 thoughts on “Facebook, Public Mourning, and Virtual Graveyards

  1. I got drawn into your writing by the articles about mantra and the tantric implements and various anthropological considerations. But the articles on Sammy and John are evocative and honest and moving. Poetic in fact. I am glad you wrote them and that I had the chance to read them.

    Liked by 1 person

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