There is something about the Internet that brings out the worst in people. And then there are those individuals who are truly sick and demented and the Internet merely allows them to share their perversity with the world.
Death is about the most serious subject there is. It is feared because of its finality and its inevitability. We fear our own deaths, and we fear the deaths of those we love because we know the loss is permanent once the Grim Reaper’s scythe has severed the tenuous connection called life that binds us to one another.
In this respect, death is sacred in most cultures. Ceremonies honor the recently deceased and grave markers memorialize them for ages to come. Mourners “pay their respects” at funerals and cemeteries. Necrophilia and defiling of a corpse (even in wartime) is universally considered reprehensible and disgusting.
But on the Internet, it’s another story. When comedian Robin Williams died, some Twitter users posted Photoshopped images of her father's dead body on Zelda Williams’ account, along with disturbing messages including blaming her for his death. When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, the floodgates of cyberspace opened to a sea of vitriol. Social media lit up with comments celebrating and mocking the death of a public servant whose opinions and judicial philosophy were at odds with many (including my own), but who was a good man merely performing his job in a competent manner. Within hours of musician Prince’s death, a woman on my Facebook feed posted a cartoon of a heartbeat flatlining with the tagline “Princes new symbol.” She followed up with a photo of Prince tagged “He was a composer, now he’s a decomposer.” Many of her followers commented “Too soon” as if there were a moratorium on poor taste and disrespect.
Robin Williams, Antonin Scalia, and Prince were all celebrities, famous for having reached the pinnacle of success in their chosen professions. Maybe you didn’t care for Williams’ brand of humor, or Scalia’s jurisprudence, or Prince’s music— but they were each uniquely talented individuals and far more talented and accomplished than any of their posthumous online detractors. Celebrity elevates ordinary mortals to a god-like pantheon, whether that Mount Olympus is in Hollywood or the nation’s capital. They lead larger-than-life lives that the rest of us follow voyeuristically through a mosaic of tabloid gossip. While it’s true their lives are certainly far different from our own, lost in this truth is the reality that they too are people. Antonin Scalia had nine children and 28 grandchildren; I cringed at the thought of them reading the horrible comments other people had posted about their father and grandfather. You know those children are on social media; you know they saw those posts, just as you know Zelda Williams saw the post about her father. “In this difficult time, please try to be respectful of the accounts of myself, my family and my friends,” the 25-year-old pleaded on Twitter. Contrast that appeal with the sentiment of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s tweet “Don't even try to enforce the inapplicable don't-speak-ill-of-the-dead ‘rule’ for the highly polarizing, deeply consequential Antonin Scalia.”
Every celebrity is nonetheless a real person, with real family and real friends who love them and feel their loss as deeply as you would one of your own. I cannot imagine how I would feel coming home from a funeral and reading such comments about a loved one I had just buried. Can you?