Dietmar Trommeshauser was the first person that I knew only from the internet who died.
We make a lot of noise about virtual communities being every bit as real as fleshly ones, but it's very easy to offer help and support with a quick email message or even a Paypal donation to a worthy cause. You don't have to get off your ass for it, but you get to feel good. Often people disappear from your virtual world and you have no idea why.
When Dietmar died, though, he was part of our community. Our community is the Horror in Film and Literature discussion list, a venerable institution by 'net standards, having been around since 1987 (hands up if you remember the gopher days). I'm a relative newbie compared to some, having joined up in 1994. Membership fluctuates, of course, but there's a core of people who have stuck together through thick and thin (or in our case major blow-ups over Stephen King and Men Women and Chainsaws).
You can cruise the archives to see Dietmar's posts and our posts upon learning of his death. Not so much shock -- he was a quadriplegic with many health problems -- but dismay that we had no tangible way to grieve except in our words sent pinging out across the globe into the ether.
It seems somewhat appropriate that Dietmar still exits as a ghost in the wires. He was a writer who patiently tapped out his stories with a mouth stick (every time someone tells me they "don't have time to write" I want to tell them about Dietmar). His stories, his poems and remembrances of him are still out there almost eleven years after his death. For a long time, his family kept his own website up.
I don't think anyone predicted that death would be one of the things the internet did well. We're already used to the instantaneous transmissions of celebrity deaths hurled around the world via email and Twitter as Natasha Richardson's was recently. But the lingering aspects of shuffling off the mortal coil also seep into the wires and give a semi-permanence to our transitory lives -- at least as long as the server stays up.
You can consult the Death Clock or explore the last taboo. Grieving families are encouraged to "create a FREE internet memorial for your Loved One" or become part of the trademarked Internet Memorial Register. In the wake of tragedies, it's now habit to go on line and create virtual memorials every bit as compelling as those roadside memorials. There's something about public grief that seems very necessary in American culture at present (well, for many anyway).
But the glory of the web also serves well a more intimate acquaintance with death. Terrific sites record American's uneasy history with death in all its manifestations, so well exposed in books like Mitford's The American Way of Death and Waugh's The Loved One. While the uphill road to accepting death as the natural bookend of life may never be scaled, we can at least find the process fascinating.
One good site that welcomes the curious is A Repository for Bottled Monsters, an unofficial blog for folks who work at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Having been lucky enough to get the behind the scenes tour from pal, Mike Rhode, I can sing the praises of this site with enthusiasm, because I got to see the room of pickled punks, viewed photographs taken during the Civil War and even had my picture snapped holding the skull of one of the unfortunate—and rat gnawed—victims. Their blog and companion Flickr site approach death with professionalism and an historical curiosity that even the most squeamish will find fascinating.
I also recommend highly Morbid Anatomy, whose tag line "Surveying the Interstices of Art and Medicine, Death and Culture" tells you everything you need to know. They find beauty in the human form even in the stillness of death and have a wide selection of links to some of the must-see museums around the globe including the Mütter. You could make a world tour of death.
Wouldn't it be funny if the internet is the only after-life we can look forward to enjoying?
Image via Vault of Evil
[N.B. This was originally a column for BitchBuzz that the editor found too far outside the editorial purview]