Modern Mourning: New Ways We Honor Our Dead

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We humans have never been particularly comfortable with death. That's entirely understandable, of course. Death is permanent and largely unpleasant and we don't know what -- if anything -- is on the other side. For millennia, various cultural and religious rituals have helped us process our feelings about death, providing comfort when a loved one dies.

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But those rituals are fast disappearing in our increasingly secularized society -- and we actually really need them. That's the contention of author and professor Candi K. Cann in her forthcoming book, "Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century." In her research, Cann identifies several emerging trends in modern culture that seem to suggest we're searching for new ways to live with death.

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"We're seeing a disappearance of the rituals surrounding the dead," Cann said. "We're not really supposed to grieve out in public, at work, in front of people. So you see this dichotomy of what's almost an obsession with death -- all the vampire movies and zombie movies -- but at the same time there's a disappearance of grief and grieving."

Cann said that, for those people who don't participate in traditional or religious mourning rituals, there's a movement toward do-it-yourself memorializations. People are finding new and often technology-driven ways to honor the dead.

Cann cited the virtual memorials that have become so popular on social networking services like Facebook. Here, people can assemble photos, videos and written tributes for a memorial that can be visited remotely from anywhere in the world. Many traditional funeral homes now offer a private version of the online memorial, often called a virtual headstone option. Cann said that there are now more than 1 million Facebook pages for dead people.

Memorials sometimes go viral in an entirely different way. A recent worldwide pay-it-forward movement was triggered by the sudden and tragic death of a Pennsylvania teenager from epileptic seizure. The family of 18-year-old Alyssa J. O'Neill went to the local Starbucks and bought 40 pumpkin spice lattes -- Alyssa's favorite -- and gave them away to strangers with the hashtag #AJO written on the cup. The story, and the random act of kindness, went viral. The O'Neill's have received pictures of #AJO coffee cups from as far away as Sri Lanka.

Donald Joralemon, professor of anthropology at Smith College in Massachusetts, said these kinds of pay-it-forward tributes have been in the culture for centuries. "But it's like on steroids now," Joralemon said. "Because of the power of mass media and social networks, it just speeds it up and spreads it at a far, far more rapid pace."

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