Thursday, May 28, 2009

Death on the Internet

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]


Cranky Yankee said...

Sorry to hear about your friend. It's good that people will remember him.

If you don't mind me adding this: another site for death info is The Center for Thanatology Research and Education, Inc.
It's run by an acquaintance and fellow AGS member, Roberta Halporn. Roberta is a good caring person.

Anonymous said...

A lot of useful information here, thanks. I know when one of my online friends suddenly becomes quiet - absent for days - I get nervous, like "god I hope he's all right!"

But I'm sorry to hear of your loss of a friend for real.

The Old Silly from Free Spirit Blog

C. Margery Kempe said...

Thanks, Marvin. It is wonderful how a friendship grows from words alone. Such power in those little squiggles to bring minds together.

Cranky, thanks for the kind wishes and the terrific link!

Todd Mason said...

It's still croggling (as we fantastic-fiction fans sometimes say or write instead of "mind-blowing" or similar locutions) how one can become enmeshed in the lives of others through this and related media...not so very startling when one recalls that such enmeshing could happen through the mails in the past, in round-robin chains and various sorts of limited-ciculation periodical, but as with most things today, one can do it all so much faster now. I've watched one virtual acquaintance plummet into an almost inevitable suicide (it wasn't absolutely clear till afterward how alienated he was), had the less than rewarding duty of reporting to a listserv the death of one of its most prolific members (another member had almost randomly found an account of his fatal traffic accident, after wondering why he was suddenly so "quiet," and brought it to my attention, and I was able to confirm the bad news), and I was able to express some appreciation to them through yet another list for such writers as Henry Slesar, Damon Knight, and Thomas Disch before their deaths, and even perform a small offlist favor for Knight and Kate Wilhelm as he was going into his final decline.

As one who joined Horror (for the first time) in 1992 (I, too, missed the Heroic Years...except for Dietmar's, which in his effort would all have been...though I missed most of his activity onlist, in my several-years interregnum), I have been impressed and gratified at the quality of the discourse and the personalities involved.

Because I've had more interaction with them, albeit virtual, some of these passages, at least, hit me harder than those of relatives and other people I've actually met.

Karen Walker said...

I find it extraordinary - the connections I have made to people I have never met face to face. The loss must be just as deep. My sympathies to you.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Todd, very lovely comment. I often think the internet is a particularly compelling medium for writers and we do so dwell in our words and the connections we make are strong -- yes, just as in the days of reliance on the post. The people who touch our imaginations often have a stronger claim on our hearts than those related by the mere chance of blood.

Karen, you are so kind.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

What an interesting post and something I haven't given much thought to - until now. Dietmar sounds like a very special person.

Jane Kennedy Sutton

KK Brees said...

We make so many new connections in the virtual world. It does seem at times to be an alternate universe. It's got its own laws and operating principles, and once you've experience "the black screen of death" you know what it's truly like to have the plug pulled.

Phil said...

One of the things I enjoy about your musings is the way you combine emotion--in this case a moving tribute to someone whom I never came to know as well as you though I shared time on the list with him briefly--and intellect, in this case your ruminations. I thought your post here was wonderful.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Phil, sorry for the delay in posting your comment. Not sure why it flagged "moderation" but thank you for dropping by and for your kind words.