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Summary:

Posting to Twitter from someone’s funeral might be seen as inappropriate, but to me it seemed like the perfect way to honor my friend — and it also allowed others to feel as though they were part of the ceremony even though they couldn’t be there.

There’s been a lot written about how social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook interfere with our daily lives, prevent us from living in the moment, get in the way of face-to-face interactions, and so on — and all of this is true, to some extent. But I am a firm believer in the idea that there are some big benefits to these tools as well, including the power of serendipity that they can bring to our lives. Another benefit is the ability to bring others into the event we are experiencing, even when they can’t be there in person, and that was something I experienced first-hand this weekend, when I attended the funeral of a close friend and decided to live-tweet the proceedings as a tribute to him.

My decision to do this — which a number of people who follow me on Twitter reacted to with a combination of shock and/or disapproval — came about because of who my friend was: Michael O’Connor Clarke was a veteran of the Canadian and U.S. public-relations industry with a keen interest in social technology, and was a long-time user of Twitter right up until his death a week ago, as a result of esophageal cancer. He was also an early volunteer and tireless supporter of the Mesh conference in Toronto (of which I am a co-founder), and of related social efforts like HoHoTo.

I thought it would be fitting to live-tweet Michael’s funeral because of his interest in such things, but I also thought he would have seen the humor in it if he had been alive, since he loved jokes and had a highly-developed sense of the absurd. I didn’t count on seeing an additional benefit, however, which was the ability to share what was happening with others who couldn’t attend. Not only did many of Michael’s friends thank me for doing it, but members of his family who live in Ireland and elsewhere also said how much they appreciated me posting details of the service:

Seeing things through another person’s eyes

I was conscious while I was posting about it that my behavior might have been seen by some as intrusive or inappropriate, and several people nearby seemed irritated (or so I imagined at least), something Alexander Howard of O’Reilly mentioned as a potential deterrent to doing such a thing. And there have certainly been responses like that to others who have live-tweeted funerals, including a reporter for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News who posted from the funeral of a 3-year-old who was killed in 2008.

Some said that the reporter was being disrespectful of the family in that case, even though he had been invited to the ceremony by the family themselves, and did nothing to interrupt the proceedings. As I wrote on my personal blog at the time, I couldn’t really see any reason why live-tweeting should be forbidden, provided journalists were allowed to be present in the first place. How was doing this any different from taking notes in a notepad and then writing a blog post or news article later? Provided it didn’t disturb anyone, I didn’t see the problem them and I still don’t now.

What was interesting to me in Michael’s case was how many people said that they enjoyed reading about the ceremony from afar, including several people who had wanted to be there but couldn’t for one reason or another (the ceremony was also live-streamed online, which I didn’t realize until later). In a sense, all I was doing — in addition to honoring my friend in the best way I could think of — was pursuing the mandate that Jay Rosen says is the underpinning of much journalism or reporting, which he describes as “I’m there and you are not, let me tell you about it.”

One of the key features of social tools like Twitter, at least for me, is their ability to transport us to different places and allow us to see things through another’s eyes, whether it’s a personal event like Michael’s funeral or a politically-charged situation like the Arab Spring. This ability to collapse space and time is something that we almost take for granted now — but it is an incredibly powerful phenomenon.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users George Kelly and Alexander Vaughan

  1. Mathew this is a brilliant use of Twitter. I’m a big supporter of anything an anyone that helps other see the emotional benefits of grieves, especially using social media tools to do it. I’ve done similar things in the contexts of concert and the live music experience on my Live Fix concert site. http://christophercatania.com/tag/rip/

    If you ever need a partner to help with your next grief experiment let me know I’d love to help out.

    I’m very sorry to hear about your friend and this sounds like a great way to celebrate his life and carry on his legacy. Bravo!

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  2. Samuel Satter Sunday, October 21, 2012

    Wow, I never thought about it liek that.

    http://www.Over-Anon.tk

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  3. Connecting with others is what is important. It is nice that you could share being there with others who were not, but remember when you are there to be there yourself– not just for yourself, but for the others who were there too.

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  4. If anyone live-tweets my funeral, I swear to God I will haunt them until the day they die. If they write an article explaining why they did it, and how it was a great learning experience for them, I’ll haunt their children too. And I’ll like it.

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  5. For this fellow’s funeral it was entirely appropriate. He would have said ” oh absolutely please do or what didn’t I make clear to you about my passion for these things?” I was there. I work in social media, too. If you’d been been beside me I’d have said” go for it” for those who could not attend. At the same time it’s such a novel idea that, had I been doing it and it was bothering (maybe distracting) someone next to me, I’d hope I’d have the good grace to move considering their feelings on such a onetime occasion are as important as mine.

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    1. Thanks, Bruce.

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  6. I’m failing miserably at replying from a phone so apologies if I spam!

    This is Michael’s kid brother, Kieron. I am glad you tweeted the funeral. I speak not only for myself but for Leona, Michael’s wife, and for the rest of the family. We all appreciated it as it was so him.
    I spoke to Leona before replying here and in her words:
    “Michael would never have done something like this were if it was not appropriate, for Michael it was entirely appropriate.”
    It is understandable that some would see it as invasive or disrespectful but Michael would have appreciated seeing social media used in this way.

    Thank you.

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    1. Thanks very much for replying, Kieron — and for being so understanding as well. I am glad that Leona feels the same way. I only did it to honor Michael’s memory in the best way I knew how.

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  7. To clarify: This was appropriate in Michael’s case. For many others it would not be. We don’t recommend people do this at other funerals. Michael was a special case.

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  8. Social technology is changing our sense of privacy, connection and even appropriateness (and it can be in a good way). My wife wrote up a great piece after seeing Facebook used as a tribute to friends who died unexpectedly.

    http://successfulworkplace.com/2012/08/13/death-and-grieving-in-the-social-world/

    As we realize that social media is just another way to communicate, the barriers will come down further to these ideas.

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    1. Thanks, Chris — and thanks for the link to that article as well. I have seen the same thing.

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  9. What a self-indulgent arse.

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  10. Hi Mathew,

    As you have said , it might be appropriate for him. But in this age , many like me , would have wished that you did not write an article about it , since it was a special case.

    I for one , would not like to see people tweeting in my friend’s funeral. Why don’t we start live streaming via Google hangouts ? This article will encourage more people to do this behaviour.

    Maybe people will one day pay someone to tweet about a funeral and everyone will just follow it on twitter.. Damn.

    Many of us feel this is disrespectful because the greatest thing you can give people is your time. Just being there in the moment and thinking about the person is the best thing you could do for him. Logging in to twitter and typing your tweets and seeing who replies does not figure in that list. And seeing this in a list of tweets between food blogs and other person inane status updates is not appropriate.

    We are so obsessed with sharing it is laughable.and some of your supporters (not to be disrespectful) I believe are just supporting because they now don’t feel guilty of not being able to make it.

    You just did not tweet , you took a pic , shared it on instagram and had enough time to link that on twitter.

    I dont know.. This just is disgusting for me.. Please do not write about these and encourage more people to do it.. Please..

    Cheers

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    1. Thanks — I respect your opinion, but I disagree. I was thinking about and honoring my friend the whole time I was doing it. Why is singing ancient songs or crying an appropriate way of mourning, but typing or sharing a photograph isn’t?

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