Between tradition and modernity there is a leap of digital faith – digital transformation meets romanian death ways

Looking into the local context

In Romania, where I come from, old funeral wreaths, domestic waste, dirty artificial flowers and broken vases piled up in a corner of a graveyard is not an uncommon sight. Romanian public cemeteries, big or small, have become overcrowded, contradictory and liminal in all sorts of ways. Poor management is, of course, a major part of the problem, but not the entire problem. 

As everyone can imagine, material left at gravesites is strongly connected with beliefs and ideas about how people should live or die. And how they should not. Such beliefs and ideas have acquired a recognisable form over time. They are  preserved in "big" rituals and well-defined customs. For example, in the Eastern Orthodox religious tradition still widely practised in Romania, the public expression of grief has strong lyrical, epical, dramatic and interpersonal elements, each with their own unique role in supporting "the big story" and thereby attitudes towards one's self, towards this world, towards the other world, and towards others, dead or alive. In this complex puzzle, there was a place for dogmatic narratives as well as for informal, vernacular practices allowing for originality as well as for a more structured spiritual guidance: spontaneous laments (personal) at one end of the spectrum, and an immutable framework (impersonal) at the other.

Traditional norms have been challenged for quite some time now. They have become too old. Their spiritual purposes (a safe journey to the other world, forgiveness of sins, resurrection in the body) are often perceived as lacking practical value. For many in the West, Romania is a collectivistic society with archaic reminiscences, a place where relics of saints perform miracles and vampires lurk in old ruins. In fact, post-communist Romania is more culturally hybrid and less spiritually homogenous than reflected in international literature and media discourse. Under communism, people got into the habit of absorbing contradictory institutional norms and rules. Post-communist generations still live by contradicting certainties. In Romania, we are simultaneously inside and outside "the modern" world.

Beyond such local particularities, however, we see one constantly rising networked society. The vast majority of Romanians use high-speed internet daily. Facebook is their preferred social media network. When people go online, their bodies become dismissible. They are connected to others "in spirit". But what does that mean for an Orthodox death culture deeply engaged with the physicality of death? The last kiss (kissing the dead's forehead or their stiff hands holding a lighted candle or a cross) still describes a "good death", but more and more people seem prepared to leave such mentalities behind. Online artefacts and grief groups are slowly accepted. From our preliminary findings it would seem that the materialities of death and face-to-face interactions in the proximity of death have started to fade into the background.

The digital realm exposes its users to countless "alien" death ideas. Their immediate abilities to complete expected domestic, interpersonal and spiritual tasks related to dying and death do not necessarily increase. And it may take a while until that happens. Traditions do not fade evenly. There are sudden drops, but also reversals. Therefore, when talking about losing local death culture, we must stress that this is intermittent loss. This intermittence keeps people suspended between two worldviews.

Looking forward: the DiDe research consortium

Death narratives are currently changing in Romania. We believe it is a unique occasion to grasp in real time some of these changes. We started by asking what the socio-relational conditions might be for going digital or, on the contrary, for resisting digital transformations, in the proximity of death.

Yesterday was Good Friday - also known as Black Friday or Dry Friday - for Eastern Orthodox Christians. According to a centuries-old tradition, people light candles at the gravesites for the souls of the dead. Good Friday is known as the saddest and the strictest day of the liturgical year. Some people fast until sunset. "The older people anyway", one 23-year old interviewee said, "the young ones refrain from going online, some didn't go online for, like, 40 days, during the Great Lent". When I looked at her with a questioning look, she added "the point is to stop doing the stuff you do for fun, gaming, music and such." Is this a way of not missing out on tradition or, quite the contrary, a sophisticated way of being modern? Can anyone become deeply modern without overcoming tradition?

In a global world, information floats freely and so do the individual and collective meanings of life and death. But where do global and local meet when it comes to a certain digital death trend? How to approach change towards such trends and how to interpret resistance to change? These are just a few of the questions which will be brought up in our research. So far, what has been observed is a need for symbolic local "sustainability", that is, for meaningful intersubjective experiences in the proximity of both online and offline death. Our qualitative methodologies could hopefully provide some insight into various aspects of people's own thick experiences.