Internet + Death

When I was in the taxi riding home from JFK airport two weeks ago, after our trip to Croatia, I received this text from the superintendent of my NYC coop: “Your neighbor in 10A passed.”

I was stunned on several accounts.

First, I never understood that expression. Passed? I am not trying to be funny, but passed what? An exam? Broke wind? Passed a stone? I just asked Eliot if he agreed with the expression “passed” before writing this post. He got annoyed with me and in a tone that only a 100-year marriage could produce (remember, we work together 24/7), he sighed, “What do you think it means? Passed. Like in passed on. Like no longer living. Like on to the afterlife.” It seemed to make sense during his explanation, but I don’t like it.

Secondly, I was stunned to receive a text. That seems to be the way I am receiving death notices these days. Cut and dry. No need for small talk. “Virginia passed.” Now don’t say that this is “just New Yorkers.” Many people in my coop know each other well because we are always at each other’s throat over some issue.

Virginia was another story. My quiet neighbor who I’ve seen maybe 10 times in the last 20 years even though we lived side-by-side, seemed happy and healthy when we met at the trash chute a month ago. She was around my age and single. I was on my way to work when she opened the door to throw out her garbage. This was our usual encounter. Virginia had been sick a few years back and looked frail for quite some time. In the last year or two she seemed active and carefree. I also confirmed this with our doormen. They know things like that.

I tried to talk to our super Salim face-to-face, but he was too busy in the morning before I left for work and off the premises when I came home at night. So the texting continued. “What happened?” I texted.  He texted back, “Her nephew called me to say that he couldn’t reach her. When he came to the building a few hours later, we both went into her apartment together. We found her in bed, gone.”

When I met up with Salim days later, he told me that in the 20 years he has been working in the building this marked the eighth body he’s discovered — several found in bath tubs, on the floor, or slumped in a chair.

The third thing that stunned me was the notice the police posted on Virginia’s door. Until an autopsy is performed and a death is determined, no one is allowed to enter the apartment. The seal on the door cannot be broken. Salim promised to text me the findings. Other neighbors asked me to text them what I’ve learned.

Texting has replaced hanging out the window, screaming your neighbor’s name.

By the way, we argue by text as well but we use CAPS. “SCREW YOU!!”

I wanted to tell you this story after reading Jenna Wortham’s New York Times piece about “Death Online.” Jenna has been reporting on digital news for years. She is well-respected and adored.

NYTimes: Digital Diary: Talking About Death Online

Posting about a personal loss online makes people — both the poster and the readers — uncomfortable. Why does the social Web seem limited to a few emotions? http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/29/digital-diary-talking-about-death-online/

Rest In Peace Virginia