Do I Unfollow Someone Who Has Died?

Do I unfollow someone who has died?

It’s an odd question but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Among the byproducts of this digital age where social media is as ubiquitous as air or water are the dormant accounts left behind by those who’ve passed. They serve as epitaphs of sorts; logs of lives wherein a person’s passion, politics and perceptions are preserved through posts and photographs. They’re digital diaries meant to communicate with friends, families, and strangers in an instant, moment-by-moment basis so what happens when the person behind the account is no longer there?

The other day, I realized I’m following Chris Cornell, the famous rock and roll front man, on Twitter. Though I was never a super fan, I happened to really like an experimental pop album he made and when a song from that album came up on my Spotify playlist a few years ago, I tweeted about it. My principle use for Twitter is to remove stray thoughts from my head not unlike Dumbledore and his Pensieve and since I was, perhaps, the only person who actually enjoyed that album—most of his fans were startled and disappointed he’d stepped out from under his more traditional rock sounds to try something new—I tweeted about it on the off chance he might see it; sort of my way of thanking him for an album that made driving around town more fun.

He or whoever controlled his account not only “liked” my tweet but followed my account as well. I think Twitter is at its most useful when a regular joe like me can thank an artist, politician or writer for their work so it was fun to know the message had been received and I followed him back. In the years since, I haven’t thought much about it though. I’ve been quietly following him but since I don’t endlessly scroll through Twitter on a daily basis, I hadn’t given him much thought beyond listening to that album occasionally.

Cornell committed suicide in 2017 and the news broke my heart. I hate when the world loses people to depression or other mental illnesses. It claims far too many lives and I wish we could reach everyone with hope and help. A year and a half later while sifting through the accounts I follow in an effort to see if, like Marie Kondo would instruct, the accounts I’m following bring me joy, I came across Chris Cornell’s account, still following me.

Now I know he’s not with us and therefore can’t, in any way, be offended if I unfollowed his account—someone else has been manning it to post tributes and updates about posthumous music releases and recognitions—but a question bubbled up like a factoid on Pop Up Video: Is it weird to unfollow someone who has died?

We all know social media has an incredible hold on our lives but the fact I was even considering the pros and cons about something as innocuous as unfollowing a dead rock star’s account screams of overdependence. This consideration was further complicated when I saw that of the 1.79 million followers he had at that moment, he was only following 553. And for reasons unknown, I am still one of them.

The album of his I loved was titled “Scream” and it was released ten years ago. It was widely panned but I thought the timbre of his voice totally worked with the pop/rock hybrid he was going for. Perhaps it was because I mentioned an album he was proud of but was so critically shunned that he followed little ol’ me, or perhaps it was because I was the editor of an online magazine at the time, I’ll never really know, but it almost felt like a betrayal to unfollow his account. He “liked” my tweet and followed me, the singular interaction we ever had, but in unfollowing his account, am I erasing that interaction? Now that I’m dissecting it, it all sounds very ridiculous.

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this. One of my friends from high school died years ago and we’re still connected on Facebook. Rather, our accounts are. I’m not sure why her account is still open but I believe it’s because her mother doesn’t want her imprint erased. Maybe that’s why I struggled with this Chris Cornell thing. We weren’t friends, I never met him or even attended one of his concerts, but I don’t want the reminder of our singular interaction erased.

I happened to be reading Anderson Cooper’s book, Dispatches from the Edge, at the time and as much as there’s a lot of death in that book, there’s also a lot of remembrance. Cooper was on assignment to report the news, not, as he described it, to involve his own emotions in that news. But that was impossible. After seeing people lying dead in the streets during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, his humanity began to bubble up to the surface during his interviews with politicians and FEMA heads. His feelings were about justice, of course, but they were also about the people who would go unremembered. So much of his chronicle of covering war-torn nations and disaster-torn America was the common thread of who’d go unremembered when they died.

A coworker of mine, James, recently joined the Portuguese American Center where he lives because he’s wanted to be more connected to his community. He’s a proud veteran and while at the Center, he noticed the folded flags of a serviceman’s funeral and a miniscule mention which said the veteran died in combat during WW2. The man who I will call Sergeant Candy died in 1943 and the Center displays his flags in an attempt to both remember and honor his service. However, the only information they had was his name and when he died. Nothing else.

Not content with letting someone who fought for our country go unremembered, James began searching for more information on the Sergeant so he could more adequately honor him at the Center. In doing so, he’d found a singular mention of him in a Marine Corps newspaper from 1944 but the digital scan was grainy and nearly illegible. He came to me to see if I could help him ferret out any further information.

“I don’t know if he has any family anywhere,” he said to me. “There isn’t any family listed beyond his mother but I can’t find any information on her either.”

I love this sort of thing and after years of honing my stalking skills through social media and information-grabbing for magazine article prep, we quickly found a digital reader which deciphered more of the pixelated newspaper clipping. We learned Sergeant Candy was a part of the Bougainville Campaign in the Solomon Islands. A little research into that campaign revealed American troops landed and held the perimeter around the beach at Torokina, a village on Bougainville Island, between November of 1943 and November of 1944. We now had some more fleshed out context in which to place this man.

The next listing we found included the actual date of Sergeant Candy’s death and upon reading it, James said to me, “He probably died on Christmas Day.” I looked at the record and it said December 26, 1943. I gave him a puzzled look and he said, “They never tell loved ones someone died on Christmas. They don’t want their death to be forever tied to that holiday so they tell them the 26th instead.” I was surprised just how deeply that struck me. I didn’t know this man but in taping the discarded pieces of his life’s history back together, my heart became invested and the thought of dying on Christmas really gutted me. I wanted to know more.

And we found more. Sergeant Candy’s mother was from Yonkers, which made since in that his military flags were at the Center there, but then why weren’t those flags weren’t presented to her? When my grandfather who was also a veteran passed away, the flag from the casket was presented to my grandmother at the funeral. James said they were never able to find his mother which is why they remained at the Center. On top of that, we learned the Sergeant wasn’t brought back to the States at all. Rather, he’s buried at the Manila American Cemetery in The Philippines.

Our search of Sergeant Candy populated quite a few more boxes of context for this man’s life, a life he gave in service to his country, and I found myself feeling lucky to have learned about him. It also underscored the importance of remembering someone’s story. For native cultures, passing on the stories of their families and ancestors was a part of their daily lives. It’s how we have the Bible, it’s why Egyptian monuments are covered in hieroglyphs, it’s why we know anything about Native Americans. Remembrance was holy. It is holy.

It’s part of why I love reading memoirs. I love learning about someone’s life from the one who lived it and to broaden my context of the world through their lens. It’s also why I write that sort of thing myself, so I can contribute even in a miniscule way to the compendium of American stories and lives lived. This was something important to my grandfather as well. Near the final years of his life, he spent time writing down “things I remember,” which was the aptly named title of his tome. In what became a book he self-published just for family. In the opening, he wrote:

I’ve noticed as we “age” and we comment with a story or event that occurred to us 40 to 80 years ago, people look as us strangely as if maybe this is not quite true. Eventually they encourage us to “write a book” about these things or at least set them down in some written form so our descendants four or five generations hence may amuse themselves or just satisfy their curiosity as to what kind of people we were or the conditions under which we lived. So that’s what I have attempted to do.”

My silly question about Chris Cornell’s Twitter account may have been precisely that, silly, but it kicked off a not-so-coincidental series of events wherein everything seemed to be hammering home the power and importance of remembrance. My grandfather said his project began as a tri-fold and as the job ballooned into something much larger than he anticipated, he considered aborting it altogether. “But only for a minute,” he wrote, “because I’m a Brinson, a Texan, a member of the Sons Of The Republic of Texas even, and we don’t quit!”

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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