When I die – which, given the state of my stress levels, may be sooner than you think – if anyone describes me in terms of my family relationships (“daughter, niece, girlfriend, wife”), or my job, or some banal string of characteristics that people think sound nice, I will be furious. I won’t of course, I’ll be dead and completely oblivious to everything, but I want you to know that you’ll have started the process of whitewashing my memory.
Let me tell a story about my uncle’s funeral – wait, I’m going somewhere with this. Dead at 65 from lymphoma, the eulogy given by the random minister assigned by the crematorium was a travesty. Nothing about his hopes, dreams, loves, hates; anything that made him who he was. His only natural child died young and that didn’t get a mention, but there was time to list every single fucking street he’d ever lived in. This isn’t the minister’s fault, he could only work with what was given to him by the family. And afterwards people were speaking to each other in hushed tones about what a lovely service it had been. Except it was a terrible service, with barely any indication of who the human being in the box had been.
And so: Paris. There’s a Twitter account, @ParisVictims, tweeting short bits of information about the people who died on 13 November. I’m struggling to find anything on there that’s not bland or platitudinous. “Friend, brother, son” reads one. “Daughter, sister” reads another. Well, yes. We all tend to be at least one of these things. One man is described as “efficient”. Shit the bed. This guy has died, horribly. Is this the best that can be said about him? What about his desires, his achievements, his plans for the future? If you want to show the world what has been cruelly cut down, please try and do the dead the honour of representing them properly.
This is largely the fault of social media, where being first is considered better than being thorough. @ParisVictims is the Twitter version of a Mashable project which is clearly scouring news sources and people’s social media accounts to gather tiny snippets of information to share with the world. But, to me, this isn’t respect. It’s rubbernecking. After 9/11, the New York Times went out and did a proper obituary for everyone who died. It took a while, but you get a real sense of who they were as people.
Are we happy with this cavalcade of trite? I think we must be. Because ‘we’ tweet and Facebook ‘RIP’ as a reflex when someone dies, even though RIP belongs to a time when we all believed in an afterlife, a hell and a resurrection. It’s now such a reflex that it’s meaningless, just a way of showing to the world that you care. Even if you don’t.
Appearance is all; you can get torn to shreds for not wearing a poppy, even if you think it’s appalling that a charity has to exist at all to take care of those who the government has sent off to die and be injured; even if you’d happily pay more taxes to replace the Royal British Legion with proper, state-funded care; even if you went on that Stop the War march before Iraq that changed absolutely nothing and you feel sick at the thought of the carnage that happened ‘in your name’. Wear the poppy, change your Facebook profile to a Tricolor; otherwise how will people know you care? Other than, maybe, a genuine, thoughtful statement?
Or even better, say nothing at all instead of something shallow and stupid.