Internet + Death

When I was in the taxi riding home from JFK airport two weeks ago, after our trip to Croatia, I received this text from the superintendent of my NYC coop: “Your neighbor in 10A passed.”

I was stunned on several accounts.

First, I never understood that expression. Passed? I am not trying to be funny, but passed what? An exam? Broke wind? Passed a stone? I just asked Eliot if he agreed with the expression “passed” before writing this post. He got annoyed with me and in a tone that only a 100-year marriage could produce (remember, we work together 24/7), he sighed, “What do you think it means? Passed. Like in passed on. Like no longer living. Like on to the afterlife.” It seemed to make sense during his explanation, but I don’t like it.

Secondly, I was stunned to receive a text. That seems to be the way I am receiving death notices these days. Cut and dry. No need for small talk. “Virginia passed.” Now don’t say that this is “just New Yorkers.” Many people in my coop know each other well because we are always at each other’s throat over some issue.

Virginia was another story. My quiet neighbor who I’ve seen maybe 10 times in the last 20 years even though we lived side-by-side, seemed happy and healthy when we met at the trash chute a month ago. She was around my age and single. I was on my way to work when she opened the door to throw out her garbage. This was our usual encounter. Virginia had been sick a few years back and looked frail for quite some time. In the last year or two she seemed active and carefree. I also confirmed this with our doormen. They know things like that.

I tried to talk to our super Salim face-to-face, but he was too busy in the morning before I left for work and off the premises when I came home at night. So the texting continued. “What happened?” I texted.  He texted back, “Her nephew called me to say that he couldn’t reach her. When he came to the building a few hours later, we both went into her apartment together. We found her in bed, gone.”

When I met up with Salim days later, he told me that in the 20 years he has been working in the building this marked the eighth body he’s discovered — several found in bath tubs, on the floor, or slumped in a chair.

The third thing that stunned me was the notice the police posted on Virginia’s door. Until an autopsy is performed and a death is determined, no one is allowed to enter the apartment. The seal on the door cannot be broken. Salim promised to text me the findings. Other neighbors asked me to text them what I’ve learned.

Texting has replaced hanging out the window, screaming your neighbor’s name.

By the way, we argue by text as well but we use CAPS. “SCREW YOU!!”

I wanted to tell you this story after reading Jenna Wortham’s New York Times piece about “Death Online.” Jenna has been reporting on digital news for years. She is well-respected and adored.

NYTimes: Digital Diary: Talking About Death Online

Posting about a personal loss online makes people — both the poster and the readers — uncomfortable. Why does the social Web seem limited to a few emotions?

Rest In Peace Virginia

3 thoughts on “Internet + Death

  1. This reminds me of this scene from a Seinfeld episode. In the ’90s, the equivalent of the inappropriate text instead of a phone call was a street cell phone call instead of a landline call.

    This scene takes place on a NYC sidewalk with Jerry, George, and Elaine (

    Elaine: “Ohhhh, I forgot to call Jill… ” (Puts a rather large early type cell phone to her ear.) “Jill, hi! It’s Elaine! How is your father? Is everything OK? What? I can’t hear you so good, there’s a lot of static. I’m gonna call you back.”
    Jerry: “Jill’s father is in the hospital and you call to ask about him on a cell phone?”
    Elain: “No good?”
    Jerry: “Faux pas!”
    George: “Big, hefty, *stinking* faux pas!”
    Jerry: “You can’t make a health inquiry on a cell phone. That’s like saying I don’t want to take up any of my *important* time in my home so I’ll just get it out of the way on the street.”
    George: “And the *street* cell phone call is the *lowest* phone call you can make!”
    Jerry: “It’s an act of total disregard. It’s selfish!”
    George: “It’s dismissive.”
    Jerry: “It’s pompous
    George: “Why don’t you think? Before you do something?”
    Elaine: “Here’s a thought: (pause) Bye bye.”

    Sure, times change. But sensitivity should not. I just had an email discussion with an adviser who types her responses to my questions in ALL CAPS. She defends it as being “quicker” — for her, or for me? I feel like I’m being chastised, but even when I tell her that, she persists, admonishing me to read the “energy” instead of the type. I try. But it’s hard.

    In these times when typing is replacing, as you said, Lois, shouting from our windows, talking on the phone, or visiting in person, we have to pay more attention to how what we say in print is “heard” by our readers. And whether the medium is right for the message. Well done.

  2. Great article as usual Lois…Hurt feeling aside, I have to vote for Eliot’s explanation of “passing”. Hope all is well…Love,Sandy

  3. I liked it back when people talked to one another. Then we found out we could get by with leaving a message. Next it was texting. Got several texts the other day from my trainer. He was changing gyms and it took three texts to explain it to me. Odds I’m following him to the new gym – ZERO. I may not be able to stop people from texting me, but I can vote with my pocketbook. I love texts for all kinds of things, but not everything. Death and sales – that’s two that need facetime.

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