published Thursday, April 24th, 2014

More of us now mourn by message: Social media a new frontier in condolences

Mourners leave messages on a Web page for Renee Card Monroe.
Mourners leave messages on a Web page for Renee Card Monroe.

"The world will miss this man."

"My heart breaks for your family."

Words of comfort, whispered during a lingering hug, inscribed in a funeral home guest book or mailed in a personal note.

And now, posted online.

Add mourning customs to the list of American habits and rituals forever altered by social media.

Families and neighbors still line up to offer embraces and handshakes and gather around a casket at a church or funeral chapel, but grief and mourning also have gone online.

Funeral homes have "tribute pages" where people can post remembrances, photos and videos, light a virtual candle, order real flowers and gifts and recommend the deceased's tribute page on Facebook.

The Chattanooga community this week grieved the loss of two prominent members on the same day. Longtime GPS headmaster Randy Tucker, retired last year from that position, died Monday in a car crash, and Renee Card Monroe, whose family owns the Card Monroe tufting business and who had her own downtown arts-related businesses, drowned with her two grandchildren in an ATV accident.

Obituary notices in the newspaper presented the facts about Monroe's and Tucker's lives to the community: such-and-such an education, so-and-so relatives, services announced, memorial funds set up.

Online tributes for both on the Heritage Funeral Home website were all about the community's feelings for the people they lost: neighbors, church family, mentors and friends.

"What your family built in our community is now your strength to draw on. Thank you for sharing Mr. Tucker with us," one person wrote on Tucker's tribute page among dozens of other remembrances.

"May you feel God's arms around you during this difficult time and may it be of some comfort to know that more people than you could ever imagine are praying for you," someone else wrote on Monroe's memorial page.

Comment below

If you would like to share your memories about longtime Girls Preparatory School headmaster Randy Tucker or entrepreneur Renee Card Monroe, who died this week in tragic accidents, please do so in the comments section below this story.

"Social media has definitely changed the face of funeral service," said Curtis Ottinger, managing partner of Heritage Funeral Home & Crematory, which is handling both funerals today.

"I believe it's an avenue for people who just cannot attend funerals, a way to express condolences for the family. ... This generation that we live in is so dependent on social media for everything. People are so mobile now, and when you have a site like we have, it allows people that are mobile to connect with one another," Ottinger said.

While some see electronic mourning or "public grief" as invasive or disrespectful, more say it's helping to forge and confirm ties in a large, scattered world.

Writing on the Cafe blog of the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pastor Emily Carson wrote that social media "can serve as a very meaningful outlet for the range of emotions that accompany life's deepest challenges. Social media provides tools that allow an individual to reach out."

It also allows the funeral care industry to expand its continuum of services and build connections with customers, said Ryan Thogmartin, whose Zanesville, Ohio-based Disrupt Media has made a specialty of integrating social media into the funeral home industry.

For instance, he said, "I think it's made the obituary extremely more valuable."

"The consumer has realized the obituary doesn't have to be a traditional, 'preceded in death by ... .' Online, it can be whatever you want it to be."

People who go to a funeral home website to read a nontraditional, personalized life story might stay there to order flowers or food for the bereaved family. Family members in mourning can use the sites to connect with grief counselors, talk with others who also have experienced losses or begin making their own plans.

"If we can provide a platform where they can feel comfortable talking about death, that's a value for them," said Thogmartin.

But he and Ottinger said social media services are an extension of, not a substitute for, people's deep need to come together and mourn the loss of loved ones.

"It's great," Ottinger said. "It's not to replace that, it's just another arm to that."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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