It’s been a couple of weeks since NPR host Scott Simon sat at his mother’s death bed and tweeted her final jou… from the ICU of a Chicago hospital to the great beyond. Yet there continues to be much discussion about the wisdom, respect, privacy, taste of those dozens of updates with his 1.3 million followers knowing her last and intimate life details – and Simon’s expressions of gratitude for her life, grief for her death.
Intimate though they were, the tweets touched total strangers in their real-time, you-are-there reality. While there has been some debate, for the most part, people could relate. According to a story in The Huffington Post, “grief counselors, hospice workers and those who study the end of life, [say] Simon has also spurred a conversation on dying in a culture where it’s rarely discussed.”
Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye, wrote similarly in The New Yorker: “The extraordinary response to Simon’s tweets also suggests a hunger on the part of Americans for a way to integrate death and mourning into our lives – a hunger that is being met by social media. Facebook and Twitter are changing the way we mourn – rescuing America from a world where grief was largely silenced and creating, instead, a kind of public space for it.” She goes on to say that in the 20th century, death was something to “get over.” That’s what my siblings and I did when our mother died of cancer in 1968. We got so over it we barely talked about her, didn’t celebrate her life or legacies until we were old enough to know better.
Thank goodness, that attitude is changing – and with the influx and influence of the social media, it’s a fast-moving phenomenon. While there will continue to be some debate on the appropriateness of social media in this process, O’Rourke wrote of announcing deaths online: “[Facebook] doesn’t feel morbid or inappropriate to me. It’s our equivalent of the ringing of church bells in the town square, for better or for worse.”
Here are some other indications of how things are opening up:
- NPR already is one of the media outlets to document the growing interest in death-related topics with stories about obituary writing, graveyard tours (Dead Stop), some of the exchanges on Story Corps, sometimes unbearably poignant portraits of soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the spread of Death Cafes across the United States.
- In fact, Death Cafes themselves are an excellent barometer of how our society is “breathing new life into death.”
- Right here on Legacy.com, there is a good measure of interest in death and dying. The site gets more than 20 million visitors each month and not just to visit the 10 million obituaries hosted on the site – there are death-related advice columns, daily featured obituaries, and the Legends & Legacies blog where notable folks are remembered anew.
- Columnist-writer Ellen Goodman co-founded The Conversation Project to inspire – if not insist on – the end-of-life-conversations that can mean the difference between a good death and a hard death. Following Simon’s public tweets, she wrote: “The Baby Boomers are change agents of our culture,” she said. Talking about the death of parents is one way the Boomers are changing cultural norms around death and dying, she said. And as the culture changes it may become easier for politicians and policymakers to address policy gaps “without the death panel toxicity.”
- PBS is airing a new series, Homegoings, on their POV show about African-American funerals that one Harlem funeral director calls “a sad good time” – sad because the deceased is gone but joyful for the going home to God. Other television networks have also aired shows on end-of-life and death issues, including stories about those popular obituaries that go viral for their creativity, humor and poignancy.
- The art of obituary writing is coming under increasing scrutiny as people pen their own, some as a fatal disease closes in.
- Some forward-thinking funeral homes are hiring and training “celebrants” to add unique personality and life to memorial services and celebrations. In addition, some of these funerals are becoming show-up-and-show-off events (to wit, the new Washington insider book, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking… by Mark Leibovich).
- Writers and journalists, like Scott Simon, are also writing more often about the deaths – including the caregiving process and the aftermath – of parents, spouses and even children in blogs and books to magazine articles and memoirs. Others – Christopher Hitchens, Roger Ebert and John Cheever among them – are writing about their own deaths.
For his part, Simon says the attention his tweets and emotions have stirred up will have an enduring impact. “I think of this as a spur to pay more attention to death than I did before… it would be insensitive of me to not recognize and understand that something has been opened up here. That I may be in a position to reach out and make a difference.”