14/09/2016 13:37 BST | Updated 15/09/2017 06:12 BST

#RIP: The Virtual Reality Of Grieving Online

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At some point, we all have to deal with death. That's a fact that weaves its way throughout the entire course of human civilization. For the hundreds of thousands of years that we have existed as a species, we've been mourning the death of loved ones with ceremonies and rituals. Offerings, prayers, processions, even sacrifices and mummification - they're all ways of acknowledging and processing the death of a member of the community. Despite cultural differences, the idea of mourning has always involved physical acts in physical spaces - until the dawn of the internet changed everything.

It's evident to anyone in the developed world that modern life is undergoing digitalisation. Almost no aspect of our lives is uninfluenced by the reach of online technologies, and this progress continues at an ever-increasing pace. More and more of our lives are being given a digital dimension; as are our deaths.

Now that a new digital plane of existence has been opened up, our behaviour around death is manifesting in a whole new space. We are entering the age of digital mourning.

If you haven't recently lost a loved one (or even if you have) you may not be aware of the burgeoning online technology focused on providing digital ways of mourning. Facebook allow pages to be memorialised - users visit the memorial page and leave 'R.I.P's like offerings, and often re-visit on auspicious days such as birthdays and anniversaries, just as they would a gravestone.

Players of online multiplayer games build tombstones for real-life people, or hold communal funerals within the game. In a now infamous and much-discussed case, players of MMO game World of Warcraft held an in-game funeral for the real-life tragic death of a fellow player. A rival guild promptly raided the funeral and killed all the mourners, racking up equal helpings of XP and notoriety for the attackers. A cautionary tale, perhaps, for when offline and online worlds collide in space not designed for grief.

In response to the mounting demand for a place where internet-users can grieve online, developers across the world have turned their talents to creating specialised memorial sites, such as Funeral Zone. Free interactive obituaries allow users to light virtual candles and leave virtual gifts, effectively creating a digital shrine that can be accessed anywhere, anytime. Though such sites might sound niche at first, they are rapidly becoming part of the internet's DNA. After all, what is in fact less niche than death?

It is clear that mourning and grief are being moved into a digital space. It was happening before developers even realised it; social media became a natural extension of daily life and all its rituals. But what is not clear is if that transition has an impact on the value of those mourning behaviours. Can a virtual candle ever be as meaningful as a real one?

For many people, it seems self-evident that the digital can never measure up to 'real life'. It's a scepticism that has been a constant reply to all technological advances, but more recently finds its voice in a distaste for emojis, Instagram filters and Snapchat. Surely a real conversation is always more meaningful than a DM?

Many of us still have a tendency to see the material world as 'real' and the virtual world as 'unreal', but the way that people now behave online suggests that this is no longer accurate.

People live through digital media - they socialise online, they pay their bills online, buy groceries, access entertainment, express their opinions, and even, in some countries, fulfil their democratic duty by voting online. To dismiss online interactions as a lesser reproduction of real life is an over-simplification. Our digital life is a part of real life.

At the moment, internet users seem to be largely divided into two categories: those who embrace its social capabilities as a part of their identity, and those who do not. With every generation, the former group outweighs the latter a little bit more. For these internet users, fully emotionally invested in their digital selves, why wouldn't a virtual candle mean as much as a real one?

Really, only the medium of mourning has changed - the basic human need for structure and meaning is eternal and unchanging. We're simply finding new ways to cater to that need.

Ultimately, the question "Is a virtual candle as meaningful as a real one?" is already being answered on social networks, online obituaries and multiplayer games across the world. When such a high proportion of our waking hours relies on the internet, it is only natural that grief and mourning are finding their place in the digital landscape too.