Many of the #funeral photographs we categorized as selfies were associated with hash-tags such as ‘#likeforlike’, ‘#sexy’, ‘#fashion’, or ‘#follow me’ and seemed to be more about the subject’s self-presentation and self-promotion than an acknowledgment of the solemnity and gravitas of funeral rites. In these images and their associated text there did not appear to be any acknowledgment of the importance of the occasion, and comments instead typically focused on the appearance of the user. However, the majority of these photographs were not taken at the actual funeral but were often taken in the bedroom, bathroom, or car. Indeed, this form on self-presentation arguably emerged from the intersection of Instagram with long-standing traditions in Western cultures requiring funeral-goers to ‘dress up’ in formal attire and look good for the ceremony. In contrast, a noteworthy number of selfies were more reflective. Hashtags such as ‘#sadday’, ‘#nothappy’, ‘#notsmiling’, or ‘#sad’ acknowledged the solemnity of the occasion. The text accompanying the Instagram image was also often used to reflect on or engage with the funeral. Particular selfie takers hoped that ‘relatives were talking to God right now’ or said that they were ‘not ready to go to this funeral’, and comments on these selfies often reflected the sombre tone. The discursive field of multiple hashtags, accompanying captions and comments from other people, indicates an expansive practice of communication that exceeded simple self-representation, revealing efforts to also express emotion, solidarity, or connection with others.
While many of the #funeral photographs were dedicated to the funerals of family or friends, our analysis also revealed a range of other uses for the hashtag. These engagements included images highlighting the ‘death’ of inanimate objects, especially digital devices such as mobile phones and laptops. In addition, there were photographs commemorating the death of a pet or other animal, typically featuring burial in the earth, or in the case of pet goldfish, being flushed down the toilet. These #funeral images use the platform to express attachment to these non-humans with a mixture of sentiment, both heartfelt and ironic. They illustrate the way formal, sacred, and institutionalized rituals commingle with individualized profane, subjective, and sometimes improvised events in the platform vernacular. This use of the funeral hashtag highlights the possibilities enabled by the platform mechanics and by users’ own creative engagements.
Is this phenomenon unique to the millennia generation or has it been around for longer? In a 1951 publication republished in Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a similar question was asked:
Why do people keep photographs?” “Why? Goodness knows! Why do people keep things – junk – trash, bits and pieces. They do – that’s all there is to it!” “Up to a point I agree with you. Some people keep things. Some people throw everything away as soon as they have done with it. That, yes, it is a matter of temperament. But I speak now especially of photographs. Why do people keep, in particular, photographs?” “As I say, because they just don’t throw things away. Or else because it reminds them –“ Poirot pounced on the words. “Exactly. It reminds them. Now again we ask – why? Why does a woman keep a photograph of herself when young? And I say that the first reason is, essentially, vanity. She has been a pretty girl and she keeps a photograph of herself to remind her of what a pretty girl she was. It encourages her when her mirror tells her unpalatable things. She says, perhaps, to a friend, ‘That was me when I was eighteen …’ and she sighs… You agree? “Yes – yes, I should say that’s true enough.” “Then that is reason NO. 1. Vanity. Now for reason No. 2. Sentiment.” “That’s the same thing?” “No, no, not quite. Because this leads you to preserve, not only your own photograph but that of someone else… A picture of your married daughter – when she was a child sitting on a hearthrug with tulle round her… Very embarrassing to the subject sometimes, but mothers like to do it. And sons and daughters keep pictures of their mothers, especially, say, if their mother died young. “This was my mother as a girl.’ “ “I’m beginning to see what you’re driving at, Poirot.” And there is, possibly, a third category. Not vanity, not sentiment, not love – perhaps hate – what do you say?” “Hate?” “Yes. To keep a desire for revenge alive. Someone who has injured you – you might keep a photograph to remind you, might you not?
So, why do people engage in these habits? Maybe, the UCL’s free 5-week online course could be a good starting point in understanding why some people engage in some of these habits?