When it launched in 2013, Reddit’s r/LastImages community was a place for people to document the final photographs taken of celebrities and other prominent figures, and even historical objects like the Titanic. But over time, it has morphed into something else entirely.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
Now it’s a place where people post the last photos taken of their loved ones before they died, and since the Covid-19 pandemic began, it’s seen a spike in activity from both posters and commenters as they remember loved ones lost to the disease.
At the beginning of May, Connecticut-based Manny Garcia posted the last ever picture he took with his dad at a New York Giants game before he died from Covid-19. “Earlier this year, I landed my dream job, and I told myself that I would go all out for that man this year. He deserves it,” Garcia remembers. On his dad’s birthday, Garcia and his sister drove down to New York, both dressed head to toe in Giants gear, picked him up, and drove to the stadium in New Jersey.
Garcia remembers how his dad would announce the names and numbers of the players that people were wearing on their jerseys. “He was so happy to be there with his kids. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another person who enjoys and knows more about random New York Giants or New York Yankees trivia than him,” he says.
In late April, Pennsylvania-based Daniel Tweedle posted the last photo of him and his brother with their mother, grinning widely, taken shortly after the birth of his twin sons. His mother, who lived in North Carolina, traveled to Western Pennsylvania to meet her grandchildren. The photograph was taken in the summer, before Tweedle’s mother died from Covid-19. “My brother and his wife came from eastern Pennsylvania to meet my boys. It was the first time in 10 years we were together at the same time,” he says. “My mom was thrilled to meet my boys, and she would constantly demand pictures of the boys. She would buy them books and toys and clothes. We literally have winter jackets for them for the next four or five years.”
The motivation each person has for posting their loved one’s last image varies. Garcia says he hoped it would help him with the grieving process. “In my case, it did,” he says. Tweedle says he posted to the subreddit because he was angry, feeling bitter about losing his mother to coronavirus and not being able to be at her side. “I wanted people to see that those 50,000 people—at the time in the US—who died weren’t just numbers. They were real moms and grandmothers, dads and grandpas. People that we love and need,” Tweedle says. “There just seems to be a detachment from the general public. I wanted to add a face so people could see what we were losing every day to Covid.”
Debra Bassett, who researches death and dying at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, says places like r/LastImages have never been more essential. “It’s even more important now that these memorial platforms are allowing people to make their loved one important rather than making them just a statistic or a number,” she says.
Bassett has investigated whether digital afterlives—memories mediated through phone messages or photos—were a comfort or a disruption to grieving. “My findings were that people found these [digital afterlives] immensely comforting, but only if they had control of them,” she says. “In this time of Covid-19, you’ve got to remember that people are not able to go to funerals at the moment, so people are having to try to internalize their grief, because there is no structure and ceremony to death and dying.”
In a study published in 2010, researchers from Berry College in Georgia found that online social networks provided people with a centralized space to grieve, especially for those who aren’t able to do so using traditional outlets. Places like r/LastImages provide people with an outlet to express their feelings.
“To share these images is in part social rite, and during Covid a much more important ritual given the inability for most to participate in funeral services,” says Brian Carroll, a professor in communications at Berry College and coauthor of the 2010 study. “I think it’s also a defense against anxiety and feelings of loss. Photography is a tool of power. With photography, we can miniaturize, memorialize, contain, and collect—all activities of agency. And to get condolences, even from strangers, sort of ratifies these activities.”
Below users’ posts, other anonymous users share condolences and heartfelt comments. “Your mum looked like she was full of love for all her family,” reads one comment on Tweedle’s post. “Such a beautiful smile. My heart aches for the loss you and your family are suffering,” says another.
However, keeping the subreddit free from trolls can be difficult, David Li, one of the lead moderators, admits. The subreddit employs a bot to automatically remove any posts which contain an offensive trigger word, and it enforces a strict zero-tolerance policy, permanently banning people on their first offense. “The most difficult part of our job is to track down rule-breaking comments and remove them quickly,” says Li. “One rotten apple spoils the barrel, and we don’t want the original poster to see these comments that could ruin their internet memorial.”
Overall, Tweedle says, his experience reading the comments was a positive one. “Some comments made my heart a little lighter,” he says. “A few comments disappointed me. Someone said that 5G towers had taken my mom away from me. A lot of people jumped on whoever posted that and down-voted them.”
For some of these users, posting the last pictures of their loved one is akin to creating a digital shrine, along with the comments underneath. Bassett relates this to a roadside memorial, which marks the last place a person was alive. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen outlined in a paper that Facebook’s RIP memorial pages, popular in 2014, were—like posts on r/LastImages—in essence virtual spontaneous shrines in honor of the deceased.
For Reddit user SaiMoi, who posted the last picture her friend sent her on WhatsApp, her motivation was simple. “I needed to talk about her, to share the person I knew her to be, and my own grief,” she says, which she couldn’t do with other people. Although she felt self-conscious before posting it, she says that the therapeutic benefit won out. “Crying through the kindness and empathy of strangers relieved some of the ache.”
John Troyer, senior lecturer in death and society at the University of Bath and author of Technologies of the Human Corpse, argues that places like r/LastImages are a natural digital progression from memorials of the past. “I think the internet seems to have given [this tradition] a kind of new attention,” Troyer says.
Social media has made mourning a more public affair. Carroll says that many more people can participate in the memorializing, the grieving, and the comforting with ease and low stakes. “What we’re seeing on r/LastImages and the like are sort of always-on, always-open, global, weak-ties memorial services,” he says, adding that this aspect of grieving is healthy. The strength of weak ties—bonds with strangers or acquaintances—have been shown to have an effect on well-being. “Rituals of mourning as we’re seeing in social media are breaking down these walls and changing norms for what is acceptable.”
Ultimately, for people posting to r/LastImages, the process offers some catharsis. “In a way, Reddit kind of immortalized [my dad] and made his passing much easier on my sister and me,” says Garcia. “All of the comments were beautiful. They were warm and loving. Just off one photo, they fell in love with this man whose ground I worshipped my whole life.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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