44 Comments

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

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  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!

  2. Samuel Satter Sunday, October 21, 2012

    Wow, I never thought about it liek that.

    http://www.Over-Anon.tk

  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.

  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.

  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.

    1. Thanks, Bruce.

  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.

    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.

  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.

  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.

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

  9. What a self-indulgent arse.

  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

    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?

  11. Do you think it would be cool if I showed up at your Moms funeral and brought a keg of beer and maybe some elephants? Y’know we could do a whole circus theme with beer. Because who doesn’t like Elephants and beer. That would be cool with your Dad and the rest of the family right? Because I would like to know before making a complete dick of myself and be insensitive.

  12. I don’t know. If I saw someone on their cellphone at a funeral I’d be pretty pissed, and probably end up focusing on them instead of the service as would others who didn’t know what you were up to. You could tweet just before, or right after the service and have exactly the same effect on the people that appreciated the tweets and a better response from those that wondered why the heck you were tweeting from a funeral service.

  13. That was a fitting tribute.

  14. Mathew: the social nicety w/b to ask the family’s permission. But when eulogies can be videod and instagrammed, then T’d and FB’d, and messages from the deceased T’d to their twerps, it’s just a matter of time.

  15. leilaboujnane Monday, October 22, 2012

    Mathew: I am so glad you tweeted from the funeral. It allowed many many people who were not able to be there to follow along and remember Michael. I am not sure what the stigma with tweeting from a funeral is all about. I would have videotaped the entire service and broadcast it to the world. Michael was dear to so many people who could not be there + he was such an open book. I would encourage more people to connect with the world around them whichever it makes sense for them to do that including tweeting a funeral.

    1. I suspect Jim Dorsey has it right as a prediction. The etiquette will probably evolve that one person write a report on the funeral on social media with permission of the family. The presiding clergy will likely ask, like is done in other gatherings, that everyone else turn their phones off.

    2. Thanks, Leila!

  16. Mathew, I was at Michael’s funeral and before reading Kieron’s comments, based on all the references to Michael’s social media activity during the service, the poignant tweets between him and his father during the last few months of his life, and since Twitter way he connected with most people during that time, your live tweeting seemed appropriate. There were even screenshots of tweets in the slide presentation at the reception.

    Michael’s funeral was on Skype so that it would be more inclusive of his family and friends around the world. Twitter is another way of extending the service to those who cared about him. Your tweets preserved Michael’s dignity.

    1. Thanks a lot, Eden.

  17. Mathew, I was at Michael’s funeral and before reading Kieron’s comments, based on all the references to Michael’s social media activity during the service, the poignant tweets between him and his father during the last few months of his life, and since Twitter way he connected with most people during that time, your live tweeting seemed appropriate. There were even screenshots of tweets in the slide presentation at the reception.

    Michael’s funeral was on Skype so that it would be more inclusive of his family and friends around the world. Twitter is another way of extending the service to those who cared about him. Your tweets preserved Michael’s dignity.

  18. Mathew,
    as a friend of Michael’s and someone sitting near you at the funeral, I thought what you were doing was perfectly appropriate for our friend, and perfectly respectful. There was no disrespect in what you were doing, and no exploitation of this keenly emotional situation.
    You were no more disruptive, possibly less, than I was when I was asking my spouse for a kleenex for my tears.
    Your actions allowed mourners far and wide to acknowledge Michael’s passing and celebrate his life and legacy. For that he would have thanked you, as many of us have.

  19. I would love to something similar to this for my funeral. Maybe it would be skype, so friends from afar could join or photos posted of me and my friends!

    Good work Mathew!

  20. @jophis25 As Michael’s dad i can only say that if Michael taught me anything, and he taught me a lot ’bout Social media stuff, then he taught me to respect others opinions and innovations.
    I’m damm sure he would have approved. the was the whole point of his belief in people and science

    1. Well said Dad!
      Kieron.

    2. Thanks very much, Mr. Clarke — I admired your son a lot, and this was my way of paying tribute to him. He was a wonderful man, you should be very proud.

  21. why not stick a camera on the inside lid of our coffins (Coffin Cam ?). Then we can just keep all our relationships infinite and virtual and no one has to really lift a f&cking finger to pretend they care (except of course to send out a “heartfelt” tweet)…

  22. Philippe Le Roux Monday, October 22, 2012

    Mathew,

    Your article is very pertinent. My 2 cents.

    Tweeting a public event is appropriate. From a private event, it must be done with the approbation of concerned people.

    In your case, what disturb me is not the fact that the funeral was live covered but that YOU were not fully dedicated to the ceremony and its emotive and intrspective dimensio. It was a close friend and you acted as a stranger journalist.

    Maybe YOU missed something…

    1. Phillipe, I think you are projecting an inappropriate interpretation onto Mathew. He was not acting as a “stranger journalist”. He was sharing an emotional and heartfelt event with people who could not be there. It enhanced the moment, for him, and for those listening. Imagine a slightly different scenario. A church so full that some stand outside the door. One person stands near the door and turns occasionally to whisper to those outside what someone is saying inside. Would you say to that person at the door that they were “not fully dedicated to the ceremony” because they want make sure everyone hears?

      1. Thanks — well said, and a good comparison.

  23. Hey Matthew,
    My debut in live tweeting was at a hospice conference a couple of years ago, despite most people around me looking at me as if I was rude for not paying attention, I saw it as a tribute to information I thought was really important to amplify. While many people may not understand how live tweeting can be a way to tribute and honor someone, in the case of your friend, it seems appropriate to me. Thanks for writing this post, I think you approached this as a thoughtful utilization of technology and have inspired me to document that I will absolutely welcome live tweets at my funeral. We have a community that discusses hospice and related topics on Wednesday evenings and I think we’ll add this as a topic for discussion. I’m sorry to hear about your friend and I hope you continue to honor and appreciate him in ways that are authentic and meaningful to you.
    sincerely, renee

  24. Hey Matthew,

    My debut in live tweeting was at a hospice conference a couple of years ago, despite most people around me looking at me as if I was rude for not paying attention, I saw it as a tribute to information I thought was really important to amplify.

    While many people may not understand how live tweeting can be a way to tribute and honor someone, in the case of your friend, it seems appropriate to me. Thanks for writing this post, I think you approached this as a thoughtful utilization of technology and have inspired me to document that I will absolutely welcome live tweets at my funeral.

    We have a community that discusses hospice and related topics on Wednesday evenings and I think we’ll add this as a topic for discussion.

    I’m sorry to hear about your friend and I hope you continue to honor and appreciate him in ways that are authentic and meaningful to you.

    sincerely, renee

    1. Thanks, Renee — appreciate the comment.

  25. A Funeral is, or should be, exactly what the deceased (if his/her wishes were known) or their family wish it to be. In the case of your friend it seems it was an appropriate thing to, and this is supported by the comments from his family.

    I’m still uneasy that you didn’t ask for permission beforehand, either from the family or from the presiding clergy. Luckily your instincts were right but they could so easily have been wrong and people closer than you to your friend could have been very upset indeed.

    I am a singer and have often sung at funerals, and I have been told how moved people have been by the singing, but it wouldn’t occur to me to just get up and sing without having asked beforehand or at least to have offered to do so! It is not my day, just as it was not yours to choose how the funeral should proceed. I am sure you could have asked sensitively beforehand if you could share it with other friends by tweeting.

    1. That’s a fair point — it didn’t occur to me until I arrived at the church, or I would have asked. But your point is well taken. I took a risk that it would be seen as appropriate in this case.

  26. All changes to fundamental traditions and rituals involve angst and uncertainty. For a large portion of the population, Twitter remains an impenetrable silliness that only teenagers use. For another large portion of the population, it is a daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute connection to their most important social group. For a bunch of us in the middle, it’s a new way to do old things, and we are working out how to incorporate it into daily life. Remember when you used to actual “dial” a phone? Millions don’t. Remember when you used to write thank-you notes, on paper, with pen? Nope, me neither. As Mathew says, it’s as appropriate as any existing ritual, just new. I was always told that it’s the thought that counts. Same here. Good on you Mathew to see it as especially appropriate. That’s real thoughtfulness.

    1. I have been following this discussion. I met Michael as he spoke at one of our conferences. I met him first on twitter as he could convey so much with 140 characters. After he presented at one of my events we in our company became great friends as we embraced many of the same values. Thus in this case the use of twitter was most appropriate as it enabled friends and family unable to attend to also get some closure and comfort from the beautiful celebration of Michael’s Life. Matthew’s tweets were respectful, tasteful and I did not feel they infringed on the family’s privacy. If we look at this just as a tool to assist in enabling people to connect and comfort each other when distance does not allow perhaps it makes it easier to understand. It is not the tool, but how that tool is used. In this case the tweets were totally appropriate. The tone of the tweets were in sync with the tone of the celebration of life for Michael. I was at the funeral and then read the tweets when I arrived home. When I read the tweets it just made me appreciate the profound words and gestures that encompassed the wonderful celebration. I felt a sense of peace and love while at the celebration of Michael’s life and I had the same feeling when reading the tweets. I had a deep appreciation for another human beings life and the impact he had in his short time on earth. It saddened me that I had only met him a few short years ago, thus I missed so much of his wonderful life. However it also made me feel fortunate to encounter such a gem, who was surrounded by many other gems in his family, friends, colleagues and mere acquaintances. If others got the same feelings from these tweets then it is the best way to use such technology. Michael had been tweeting to all of us since he found out about his illness and required full time hospitalization. His last tweet was on September 29, and even after that he was reading our messages but could not respond due to swelling in his hands. Michael had love from his family and friends who could visit him at the hospital. Then he also had s a great deal of people who cared about him and provided him and his family with tweets of encouragement and love. When he had the energy he could read those and respond. I for one did not see Michael at the hospital as I wanted his energy to be put towards getting better and spending time with his immediate loved ones. We used twitter to send love to a friend and his family when they needed it most. When we loss that friend having the closure on twitter seemed normal in this case. Not in every case but in this case it seemed normal and most appropriate.

  27. Mathew,

    I think that if you tweet without distracting other people in attendence that’s fine. You help other people being present and paying respect. Of course, if tweeting disturbs people around you then the distraction prevents them from doing what they came to do – saying farewell, and instead focus on you and your behaviour, then that’s not so good. It’s not the intention that counts but how it’s done, and whether it adds to the experience of all who want to participate, without hurting anyone. Maybe you can issue guidelines on how to tweet in a polite way at funeral, I think the practice should be refined but not abandoned – Anyway, I think it was innovative of you to initiate that debate – real leadership.

  28. I’m with those who find your behavior pathological.

  29. As many have said, this was a special case. But I wonder if it was – in this day and age, I know a number of people who this would suit (granted, it’s my professional). But is it any different than video taping the proceedings? It’s a way to mark the memory in time – and with social, it’s a way to share with those who are unable to attend in real time.

    Would I live-tweet my grandparents proceedings? If there were people who couldn’t attend and would gain from that feeling of closeness, then yes, I would.

    And in support of this ‘special’ case – I can just picture Michael’s face light up with excitement and pride that someone he respected so much was showing him such an honour.

  30. Anastasia M. Ashman Sunday, October 28, 2012

    wish i’d had option of live tweeting my best friend’s funeral 18 years ago. instead i was in a room of people who didn’t know her because the people who did know her weren’t known to the family and weren’t invited, reciting a poem with a blank line that said “fill in deceased’s name”. there is nothing sacrilegious about sharing the moment with people who care, or who might care if you do a good job of sharing the moment. bravo.

Comments have been disabled for this post