• June 28, 2022

A Reddit Community Has Become a Memorial for Covid-19 Victims

Bassett has investigated whether digital afterlives—memories mediated through phone messages or photos—were a comfort or a disruption to grieving. “My findings were that people found these [digital afterlives] immensely comforting, but only if they had control of them,” she says. “In this time of Covid-19, you’ve got to remember that people are not able to go to funerals at the moment, so people are having to try to internalize their grief, because there is no structure and ceremony to death and dying.”

In a study published in 2010, researchers from Berry College in Georgia found that online social networks provided people with a centralized space to grieve, especially for those who aren’t able to do so using traditional outlets. Places like r/LastImages provide people with an outlet to express their feelings.

“To share these images is in part social rite, and during Covid a much more important ritual given the inability for most to participate in funeral services,” says Brian Carroll, a professor in communications at Berry College and coauthor of the 2010 study. “I think it’s also a defense against anxiety and feelings of loss. Photography is a tool of power. With photography, we can miniaturize, memorialize, contain, and collect—all activities of agency. And to get condolences, even from strangers, sort of ratifies these activities.”

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Below users’ posts, other anonymous users share condolences and heartfelt comments. “Your mum looked like she was full of love for all her family,” reads one comment on Tweedle’s post. “Such a beautiful smile. My heart aches for the loss you and your family are suffering,” says another.

However, keeping the subreddit free from trolls can be difficult, David Li, one of the lead moderators, admits. The subreddit employs a bot to automatically remove any posts which contain an offensive trigger word, and it enforces a strict zero-tolerance policy, permanently banning people on their first offense. “The most difficult part of our job is to track down rule-breaking comments and remove them quickly,” says Li. “One rotten apple spoils the barrel, and we don’t want the original poster to see these comments that could ruin their internet memorial.”

Overall, Tweedle says, his experience reading the comments was a positive one. “Some comments made my heart a little lighter,” he says. “A few comments disappointed me. Someone said that 5G towers had taken my mom away from me. A lot of people jumped on whoever posted that and down-voted them.”

For some of these users, posting the last pictures of their loved one is akin to creating a digital shrine, along with the comments underneath. Bassett relates this to a roadside memorial, which marks the last place a person was alive. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen outlined in a paper that Facebook’s RIP memorial pages, popular in 2014, were—like posts on r/LastImages—in essence virtual spontaneous shrines in honor of the deceased.

For Reddit user SaiMoi, who posted the last picture her friend sent her on WhatsApp, her motivation was simple. “I needed to talk about her, to share the person I knew her to be, and my own grief,” she says, which she couldn’t do with other people. Although she felt self-conscious before posting it, she says that the therapeutic benefit won out. “Crying through the kindness and empathy of strangers relieved some of the ache.”

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