So if you have important things to do with your life, you know like raising kids, working 40 hours a week, paying bills, etc., you may not have had the time to notice that selfies have been evolving. But they have! And that evolution has increasingly made (mostly older) people grumpier and grumpier.
The latest iteration of the selfie is the selfie at a funeral, as documented by the appropriately-named Tumblr, selfies at funerals. Again, if you’ve been doing worthwhile things with your life, then well done, Sir or Madam. Please, allow me to sum up the (immediate and prevailing) internet response to selfies at funerals for you. Here it is: YOU DAMN KIDS! GET OFF MY LAWN!
If you’d like to take the time to see for yourself, The Huffington Post published an article entitled, “Funeral Selfies Are The Latest Evidence Apocalypse Can’t Come Soon Enough.” Go ahead, read the comments at the end of that one. For god’s sake just read the title. That person is welcoming the apocalypse because kids are taking selfies where they maybe shouldn’t be.
Over at Business Insider, an article calls the new trend “narcissistic” and wags a finger at those disrespectful teens. There’s more criticism, but I’ll leave that up to you to find if you wish. It all essentially grumbles about “kids these days” and “proper etiquette” but makes no attempt to push on those feelings any further or to try and understand the feelings of the teenagers in even the slightest way.
And, I think, that knee-jerk reaction that we’ve come to expect from the media is the wrong one in this case, as it usually is anytime someone has a knee-jerk reaction without putting any thought into it. Decrying this new trend as narcissistic and disrespectful is just too easy. It involves no work at all.
Some, thankfully, have begun to think about this trend beyond their immediate gut reaction. At Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory writes that these funeral selfies may be proof of our humanity. “Photos have a way of making things concrete — whether it’s of our grandma in a casket or our dazed, post-funeral face.” Clark-Flory notes. “Who is anyone to judge what helps another person make sense of the biggest question that we live, and die, with?”
For me, Clark-Flory’s article is a good place to start thinking about funeral selfies. As she hints at, immediately judging a new way that people are using to deal with death as disrespectful isn’t helpful for anything. For one, not every person or culture has the same idea of how a deceased person should be respected. As Clark-Flory also points out, some of those same people criticizing selfies at funerals will get drunk after the funeral while others will sleep with someone who was at that funeral. Are these respectful ways of treating the recently deceased? Some would say yes and others no. The point that she and by extension I am trying to make is that there is a sliding scale of moral judgement; it’s not firmly fixed and agreed upon by everyone. Because of this, we can’t use these moral judgements as a reliable indicator of how everyone should feel about a certain coping mechanism.
What we can probably say with certainty, however, is all of these ways of coping with death are ways of affirming the feeling of being alive. And, again, I don’t choose to pass moral judgement on any of those decisions because I don’t think we really can. I don’t see it as “wrong” that young people have started to take selfies at funerals as a means to cope with death or that some people will get sloshed post-funeral as a means to do the same. How you choose to personally deal with death does not matter to me from a moral standpoint.
What I do find interesting, though, is what this latest trend says about our culture. Something weird is happening with death and social media and by quickly passing judgement on it and moving on we are doing ourselves a disservice. Back in 2010, Zadie Smith noted something similar happening on Facebook with what is currently happening with Instagram and Twitter selfies.
“I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles [sic, although I assume she may have done that (the “Angles” bit not the “iz”, which she clearly did on purpose) on purpose]. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX
“When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: ‘It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.’ But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?”
Smith’s commentary interests me greatly, particularly the part at the end about virtual contact. I’m not willing to go as far as to say that the kids taking selfies at funerals still genuinely believe that their grandparents or whomever the deceased person is is still alive. What I do think is happening, however, is that those kids are looking to share their grief with their friends and social media is how they’re most often doing it.
So, instead of having a sit down conversation with four or five of their closest friends and discussing how much their deceased relative meant to them, how the death makes them feel, what death means in general, or whatever they might talk about, those kids post a selfie from the funeral or a Twitter message about it. That is how these teens are making death real. It’s only real, just like anything else they put on social media, if other people know about.
The party you went to last night is only “real” and a killer party if you document it and other people that weren’t there now know about it and comment on it. It validates your decision of going and makes you feel better because people are interested in it. If no one comments on it, then that party must have actually sucked, even though you may have thought you had a good time at it. It’s confusing, right?
Similarly, once their friends see that posting from the funeral, they respond by saying something like Smith replicated above. Once the original teen receives and sees those messages, they feel consoled by them. The death then is “real” and holds more meaning because they have received affirmation from their social group through those responses (just as it would hold more meaning for someone who chose to talk with some friends face-to-face about it), however superficial and devoid of meaning that way of communication may seem to us who don’t use social media in that way.
And that is what I see happening here mostly. Selfies at funerals are a new way for younger people to try to cope with death. Social media has taught them that for something to have real meaning you don’t have a private discussion with a few friends to try and figure out whether that thing actually has any real meaning. Rather, you share it with as many people as possible, and if you get enough “likes” or comments on what you shared, then you can feel safe that, yes, that did have real meaning because it has been confirmed by the group.
To be clear though, I’m not advocating for this as a coping mechanism, just as I wouldn’t advocate getting wasted or sleeping with a random as a coping mechanism either. As I approach my mid-20s, I find myself understanding less and less about what people under 18 are doing and responding more and more like Liz Lemon whenever I come across “youths” when I am out in public. But, I feel that I may understand the practice of taking selfies more now from having thought about it than I ever did when I just dismissed it as dumb and something I would never be caught dead doing.
So, with that said, I suppose I’m not ready to simply dismiss anything else that is happening in that sub-set of our culture as stupid or irrelevant or chalk it up to something like “kids these days are [insert criticism here].” If we’re willing to give it some thought, we’ll see that the changing trends in youth culture are always reflective of things that are changing in society as a whole. And — if for no other reason — I see that as being valuable enough for studying and thinking about.
Charlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.
Previously from Charlie Crespo:
♦ Viral Video of the Week: Halloween Edition
♦ Little Utopia’s Epic NBA Season Preview Extravaganza: Part 2
♦ Little Utopia’s Epic NBA Preview Extravaganza: Part 1
♦ The Value of Banksy’s New York Residency
♦ Viral Video of the Week: The Inner Workings of My Mind