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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Apr-18 > Life after life

Life after life

The digital revolution has already changed the way we live— now it’s improving the way we die

The changing face of death

A fortnight ago, a friend sent me a light-hearted reminder that it was her birthday in a few days. She does this every year.

The problem is that she died a couple of years ago, and I simply cannot bear to block her (and her digital messages) from my account. I wouldn’t want to either: her satirical messages still make me smile. Like millions of other people, her continued digital life serves as a reminder of her unique identity. Her messages from the grave are a profound example of a contemporary revolution in dying and death.

This revolution even precedes an individual’s death. In their final weeks, days, and hours, those with fatal illnesses have begun to enthusiastically tweet and blog about this most significant of experiences. The process of dying, as opposed to the “event itself,” has once again moved into public view.

After death, the deceased’s Twitter feed or Facebook page is often taken over by relatives and friends—using the same picture and profile the person had control of when alive. The power of this new afterlife can be seen in what happened after the death of the Guardian columnist Michele Hanson on 1st March. Hanson could be seen reporting her own death on her Twitter feed (which had been taken over by her daughter). Her account then served as a forum for hundreds of heartrending memories of and memorials to Hanson’s life. Hanson appeared to be retweeting tributes to herself.

In such ways, friends, family, and even acquaintances can participate in the creation of an afterlife on behalf of the deceased person, engaging emotionally—and creatively—with what used to be the ultimate taboo. Social media websites have become the new memorial books. And whereas memorial books are usually closed as soon as the funeral or memorial service is over, digital conversations about, or even appearing to involve, the deceased, can rumble on much longer.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect's April issue: Four writers explain how our relationship with death has changed in as technological and medical advances have been made in recent years. Joanna Bourke explores how modern life is now able to live on through social media sites, Cathy Rentzenbrink explains how (referring to the case of her own brother) a “twilight zone,” in which someone is neither alive nor dead, has been created through medical advances. Michael Marmot argues that we are experiencing a change in regards to our life expectancy—over the course of a series of decades we have seen life expectancy increase, but what do recent decreases actually mean. Meanwhile, Philip Ball writes about his participation in an experiment to create a second brain from his own flesh. Elsewhere in the issues: Jane Kinninmont questions whether the Saudi Crown Price, Mohammed bin Salman, really knows what he’s doing, Daniel Howden charts how European attitudes to migrants might be changing and Jay Elwes asks: Does a Cornish mine hold the answer to questions about the UK’s green future?