I devoted five short sentences to “Leaving Traces” when I launched the site. Although it’s only a small blurb on the vaguely titled ‘Thoughts’ page, I get asked about this All. The. Time.
One of the things that struck me when I was freshly thrown in these deep waters exactly four years ago was that after the obvious legal, financial, emotional shit-storm subsided, I became the archivist of someone’s life. What I kept, shared or left private made a difference. And there were so many things.
What do I do with the 10,000 digital images and the storage bin full of photos? The social media history alongside the letters in a shoebox from his high school girlfriend? Our digital accounts and thousands of ‘things’ from the car keys and wallet he touched every day, to his drawer full of socks? What are you supposed to do with the socks, you know?
I mentioned a video of my late husband’s work presentation, “I get to see him make gestures that are so familiar and that are gone now. His kids will be able to hear his voice whenever they wish to.” People didn’t really have this wealth of traces not very long ago – maybe some jewelry, a silver set, and a box of letters and pictures to treasure. Some stories re-told at family reunions or a holiday dinner, that was legacy.
Now, we have thousands of photographs, videos, our online accounts, even comments on blogs to capture, review, catalog and archive. Dozens of hours, even hundreds, are required sometimes to just to simply find and go through everything. It is, of course, precious treasure to last for generations to come, clearly. And, I’ll admit, this highest honor sometimes felt like an overwhelming pain in the ass; I meticulously archived photos online with customized access – I also threw the socks in the trash.
The analog + digital legacy is curious topic for your own late-night pondering, but also appears to be driving a whole new industry. ‘Traces’ are now a more complicated mixed-bag of the old-school familiar items, plus the endless documenting of our lives in the digital world, along with the growing (unintentional) slightly shadowy smear of our ‘history’ all over the interwebs.
This week alone I connected with the incredible peeps at The Order of the Good Death, talked to LifeStory, was sent a link to the best TED talks on death and was forwarded this incredibly raw and honest documentary project “Everything Will Be Okay” telling the story one man’s journey facing death, which brought me to my knees.
Then there was this one sent my way…a BBC article ‘Life goes on after Death” about Memory Box, an intentionally curated presentation of your own life. Even though the article from is from 2010, it captures the current conversation and perspective: How much shared information is too much? What don’t you want people to see?
So it makes me wonder…is this a crazy amazing breakthrough that we can create an interactive museum-quality experience of our lives? Or, is this just a newer, more 360 version of the Glamour Shots from high school, with better lighting and an updated UI?
Are we documenting the past, trying to bring it ‘back to life’, hoping to interact with the future? I remember the duet Natalie Cole sang with her deceased father, Nat King Cole that won a Grammy in 1992. Clearly it wasn’t my Dad, but it always felt a little trippy. More recently, the widely covered Tupac hologram performance with Snoop Dogg from 2012’s Coachella. Some said it was like he was ‘brought back to life’ (for you youngsters, Tupac was shot and killed back in 1996) but my first thought is…I wonder what his family thought?
Certainly none of this is ‘new’ news. Technology has been messing with the past and our definition of progress and (im)permanence since, well, when exactly? The first photograph? The invention of the printing press? Cave paintings? As humans, we tend to think of the bigger picture when life/death impacts us: narrowly missing that car crash, waiting for test results, facing our parents mortality, coming to terms with our own, when someone you love dies.
This week is marked even more for me by a friend’s memorial and my own milestone happening the same day. But makes me wonder even more how is this going to play out, what will it look like after I am gone? Will I be regenerated in some holographic room where my kids can program me to do funny dances, admit I should have let them eat PopTarts for breakfast or tell me I was a terrible mom? A holodeck where we (all the dead ancestors) do the hokey-pokey with the living? Will it already be cliché and old-hat to create these fabricated digital ‘rifts’ in our personal time-space continuum?
While I care about what I leave for my family and how I’ll be remembered, I’ll be dead and my memory will really be only for the ones still living. It will be up to them. But whatever Death 2.0 turns out to be, it still comes down to this: Try to leave some things along the way so people can feel close to you. Whatever that is, it makes a big difference.