A new Tumblr highlights the growing trend of people taking selfies at funerals. Here's why it's not as bad as you think.
Last week FastCompany writer Jason Feifer made a Tumblr of selfies taken at funerals. The pictures are indistinguishable from any other form of selfie but the special framing suggests they deserve their own sub-category, something requiring new understanding if not outright action.
The funeral selfie is a kind of narcissism that is nauseating and transparent but acceptable so long as it remains a contained indulgence that brings with it a consciousness of potential shaming. And it seems a number of funeral selfie takers are aware of the moral gaze being cast upon them. “I think this makes me a bad person,” one woman wrote alongside her photo. “am i going to hell((yes)),” another wrote.
If there is good taste to be modeled at a funeral, it’s in solemn inaction, sharing memories that flatter the dead and spare the grieving from the strangeness of death, loss, disease, and old age.
The charge of narcissism has become overfamiliar as social media has spread. We are all capable of acts of narcissism, but only other people are true narcissists, so in love with their self-importance that they feel entitled to hijack a family member’s funeral. In its original sense, what makes narcissism bad is not self-interest but when it leads to neglect that becomes damaging to those around them. If there is a kind of narcissism involved in selfies, it’s not derived from a curiosity about one’s own body but in the immutable seriousness we want to invest the media with. Before media became interactive, it was an omnipresent stream of ghost reality that one accessed with tuners and subscriptions.
We attended televisions and radios like seances with a higher and invisible truth, unfolding a narrative reality whose claims required faith in the value of shared experiences defined through singular sources. And in their own way these passive forms of media were more damagingly narcissistic, drawing their audiences into discourse about politics and culture, in which just having an opinion became a moral necessity—Vietnam, Nixon, disco, Reagan, Madonna, Princess Diana’s death, Iraq, the Drug War, Viagra, Obama, abortion, The Unibomber, 9/11, Iraq again, Facebook, Selfies. All of these storied spirit beggars needed your judgment to become real, and the energy spent just keeping up was so encompassing maybe you’d walk past the homeless man who needed only money not opinions, and so became invisible.
Funerals are wrought from the same tradition of simply attending other people’s truths, and their American permutations come with dozens of deferences to commerce, from the rented church hall and the cost of the catering to the fusty suits and the tastefully expensive flowers almost no one will actually take comfort in. If there is good taste to be modeled at a funeral, it’s in solemn inaction, sharing memories that flatter the dead and spare the grieving from the strangeness of death, loss, disease, and old age.
What’s threatening about funeral selfies is not their narcissism, but the opportunity to steer our own forms of narcissism with greater precision, weirdness, and irreverence. They aren’t exactly noble, but in a way, they are the logical evolution of a media culture.
As one of my grandmother’s was dying I remember how strange she became in old age, her body forgetting how to walk, her brain forgetting to keep English and Danish separate, how excited she would become when a pretty bird would fly past the window, how she’d mess herself, and how sleep took over more and more of her day. It was as if her life’s accumulation of beliefs and structural convictions were finally releasing her from duty, the dramatic orientation she’d had in the world of opinions were overwritten by the immediacy of new kinds of chronic pain and sudden bursts of sensuality.
Over-identifying with the importance of media requires the dismissal of experiences that can’t be taken seriously in it. There is no place for a story about my grandmother having seen a bird on the evening news, not because it’s not historic or newsworthy in some small way, but because such smallness and intimacy would destroy our illusions about the media as a supernatural arrangement of global information happenings.
What’s threatening about funeral selfies is not their narcissism, but the opportunity to steer our own forms of narcissism with greater precision, weirdness, and irreverence. They aren’t exactly noble, but in a way, they are the logical evolution of a media culture that was veering perilously toward self-mockery in the dark days before the Internet—it was a journalist who collated them, after all.
The only way to keep people from disengaging from an increasingly transparent media superstructure is to bestow them the ability to produce a media narrative of their own, falling awkwardly in love with photographic evidence of all the social skin you can shed in a lifetime, everyone else be damned because, in truth, they were already and that had nothing to do with you.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.