The ghost in the machine

Dying used to be such a straightforward thing. You passed away. You left behind a grieving family and some worldly goods. You were buried, and maybe once a year someone would put flowers on your grave. But that was it. As far as the physical world was concerned, you were gone – your life consigned to memories, photos and some scraps of paper confirming births, deaths and marriages.

Not any more.

Even after I have died, pieces of the jigsaw of my life will remain accessible online to all and sundry. My blogs. A Twitter account. My photo albums on Flickr. Every status update I have ever posted on Facebook, including the ones I would really like to take back and pretend I’d never written. Look hard enough and you will even find audio recordings somewhere online, like a voice from beyond the grave. No one ever really dies any more, at least not in the virtual world.

All that is in the future – hopefully a long way into the future. But I had a glimpse of it today.

I have written previously about Sam Best-Shaw, one of my best friends from university – how I felt when I heard he had died at the age of 38, my reflections on his memorial service and a small in memoriam piece to mark the first anniversary of his death. This morning, as a notice flashed up on my Facebook home page reminding me that today would have been his birthday – his 40th, no less – it felt a little bit like a ghost was whispering in my ear.

What do you do in such instances? I had fallen out of touch with Sam and his family, having only seen him sporadically in the 17 years between us leaving university and his untimely departure. But I felt compelled to at least doff my metaphorical cap to him in the form of a message on his Facebook wall raising a virtual glass to him – only to find that several other friends had already had the same idea.

I have just spent a few minutes reading his wall and allowing memories of past times to come flooding back. I think I might have a look at his (sadly short-lived) blog next. Yes, I know it’s wholly inadequate and it’s not the same as talking to him or his family, but at least it still feels like there is a little bit of Sam floating around the internet like some kind of poltergeist. And it is strangely but reassuringly cathartic to know that he is forever embedded into the DNA of the world wide web. In a sense, it is proof that ghosts do exist.

Anyway, enough maudlin’. Wherever you are, Sam: hi. Mine’s a pint.
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