If you were alive and on the internet yesterday, you're already familiar with the very latest in Tumblr cringe porn:"Selfies at Funerals." Created by Brooklyn-based editor Jason Feifer, "Selfies at Funerals" combines two things Americans loathe (self absorbed teenagers & funerals) to brilliant effect.
To create the Tumblr, Feifer culled images of teenagers sassy-posing at a funeral, sometimes with the actual corpse peeking through in the background. He found them from the teens' postings on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, with hashtags like "#sadday #selfie #funeral #RIPAuntTookie."
Since the Tumblr debuted yesterday morning, the web has exploded with undisguised hatred for these kids. E.g., the Huffington Post headline "Funeral Selfies Are the Latest Evidence Apocalypse Can't Come Soon Enough." Lord help you if you read the comment sections, which herald the arrival of the 1990's-born techno narcissism hoard, bent on destroying society through duck-face and lack of self awareness.
I first contacted Jason Feifer several months ago after the debut of "Selfies at Funerals" evil older brother "Selfies at Serious Places," a tumblr featuring similar teens taking similar pictures with poetic captions like, "Selfie from the gas chamber at Auschwitz." We spoke again last night, when I asked Feifer if he spends his late night hours trolling the Instagrams of teenagers. "I definitely don't! Boy, that would be creepy," Jason replied. "It started, really, at the Anne Frank House: My wife and I were there in August and observed how people very awkwardly photographed themselves there. They knew it didn't make sense, but couldn't stop themselves from the compulsion to self-document. I wondered if people ever take this to super inappropriate levels, and I made a note to myself to poke around once I got back home."
Feifer himself doesn't consider his stable of single-topic Tumblrs to be high art or commentary on the state of modern man."I make them to convey an observation that I think is funny. That's really just the simple root of it. They also come off as cultural commentaries, and even though that's not my intention, I think that's great. The internet is one big messy dialog. We want our public internet and want our private internet, and we haven't yet figured out how best to separate the two. It's not like I have a good answer to that, and I don't make Tumblrs to point that out. I make Tumblrs to make people laugh. But I do totally understand and appreciate how it can hit a nerve."
Are these particular teenagers missing the etiquette train by posting funeral selfies? Absolutely. But just like most teenagers in 2013 have never ridden on a train, forget the metaphorical etiquette train, statistically they've never been to a funeral either. Not a single article has mentioned the reason that "Selfies at Funerals"—regardless of Feifer's humorous intentions— is actually scathing cultural commentary: our tragic disengagement with the reality of death.
100 years ago, most Americans died in their home. Their dead body would then stay in the home for several days, taken care of by the family. Children, neighbors, and family for neighboring towns would come to visit, pay their respects, eat and drink, and generally hang out, adjusting to the fact that the dead person was no longer a part of their society. Proximity to death and the dead body was not a source of fear.
Modern death practices in the West, created by the funeral industry, have given teenagers diddly squat to do when someone dies. Funeral homes come and immediately take our dead bodies away. Would these teenagers have the time to take a selfie in Japan, where after the cremation the family members gather around the bones and place them in the urn with chopsticks? Or in traditional Jewish culture, where the body is washed, purified with water, and dressed by men & women of the community? Or in Madagascar, where the whole family disinters the corpse, wraps the bones in new cloth, and dances with the bones to live music?
What if we gave our duckfaced n'er do wells the obligation to engage with the real processes of death, to remind them that when someone dies that there is a real corpse and real grief left behind. Death is not an abstract concept. They could take part in a physical and emotional ritual beyond awkwardly lining up to file by an embalmed and made up body the funeral director has laid out under rose colored lights. No wonder these teenagers retreat to the bathroom to fix their hair and take a selfie in the mirror out of impotence and boredom. Our cultural traditions have failed them, and selfies at funerals are one of their only outlets to ritual and mourning in the age of the smartphone.
Feifer himself has sympathy for the teens, in spite of dragging their public posting out into the light of the town square, "who knows—maybe posting selfies at funerals is a helpful expression of grief." As for the "Selfies at Funerals," the impact has been made, and it will go gently into the good night. As Feifer said, "how many funeral selfies does one really need to see?"
Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician in Los Angeles and founder of The Order of the Good Death. She is host of the Ask a Mortician webseries and is on Twitter, where she nobly refrains from posting funeral selfies.