Life after death, on the Internet

Virtual goodbyes: Death and the Internet

3 minute read
The late Dan Henley's life is just beginning.
The late Dan Henley's life is just beginning.
Dan Henley was a merchant on the local Renaissance Faire and Society for Creative Anachronism circuits; he often vended in New Hope and was a cofounder of the Midsummer Renaissance Faire in Lehighton, Pa. He was built big, and had a big gray beard and head of hair to match; but his hands were nimble, and he made delicate beaded jewelry. He traveled a lot, and e-mails to Dan were always answered, but sometimes not for a month or so. He had a myspace page for his business, but otherwise barely existed online— until May 6, 2009, when he pulled his car over to the side of the road and unexpectedly passed away.

At 8:28 p.m. that night, a friend of Dan's posted the first farewell comment on One of the many that followed reads, "Goodbye, old friend. My life is already less interesting with your passing." The news went out over Facebook almost as quickly, and then on to SCA-related forums, which is how I found out.

It's a funny thing to learn online that someone has died. You want to look a person in the eye when you get that news, to have that connection.

I had missed the memorial. The alternative close to hand was a Google search. Several messages had been added to Dan's obituary on his local newspaper's website:

"He... showed me what it's like to... live with a passion for life that most people let get lost in the details," wrote David from Allentown. "There will be too many empty chairs and I will forever be expecting him to walk in the front door with that big red bag of jewelry and a smile."

Nightshade Leather, a fellow merchant, had posted a farewell on its own site: "We know that even now he is bribing the Gods and wooing the Valkyries in Valhalla. We will miss you, Dan, and will heft a mug of mead to you in the afterlife."

Friends had blogged about Dan, and soon I added my own memorial to the blogosphere. I also looked up Dan's mother's address on whowhere and sent her a card by snail mail. She later thanked me by e-mail, and now we're "friends" on Facebook.

Dan's web presence continues to grow. On April 14, the evening before what would have been his 49th birthday, the "Dan 'Chip' Henley Memorial Page" launched on Facebook. The morning after his birthday, the page was pushing 80 fans, and racking up photos and birthday wishes on his wall. He's still getting messages on his myspace page, too, though now it reads, "Big Dan, missed by all."

In the past, folks have remembered the dead through tombstones, gardens, stained glass windows and donations. We prayed to those who passed away, dreamed of them, sought out mediums, and even wrote them letters. Now, it seems, we also construct virtual memorials, and we send our farewells into the ether on social networking sites.

The Internet as a medium is often justly derided as casual and trite. But the messages left by Dan's friends testify to a potential for eloquence and sincerity, and even a kind of immortality.

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