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Cell phones and funeral etiquette

Mourner at a funeral using their cellphone

The world we live in is changing at an increasingly rapid rate. Thirty years ago you would have been lucky to have a computer in your home, yet nowadays almost everyone has a smartphone, making it possible to access the internet any time, any place. For many people the internet is an integral part of almost every aspect of their lives: their job, their leisure time, ordering groceries, researching what restaurant to eat at, what movie to watch, talking to friends. But when, if ever, is it appropriate for you to use a cell phone at a funeral?

The fact is that our day-to-day lives have changed drastically over the last few decades. Because these new technologies have entered our lives so quickly, a lot of the etiquette is being made up as we go along. This means that people have vastly different ideas about what is acceptable at a funeral. Can you answer a call? Send a tweet? What about a selfie?

Social media allows users to talk to their friends, share photos, videos and thoughts, as well as let their friends know what they are doing at that moment, all via a computer or smartphone. In the U.S., people spend an average of just under two hours a day on social media, making it a significant part of our social lives.

There has been some discussion in the media recently about how appropriate it is to use social media at a funeral. Some users might be tempted to chat to their friends via Facebook during the service, or check out the latest on Twitter on their cell. Essentially, these things distract from the actual funeral service and the person who has died. Many people, even those who regularly use social media, will likely view this as disrespectful.

Some people are starting to use social media to ‘live tweet’ funerals. This involves posting regular updates on Twitter, telling fellow Twitter users about each stage of the funeral service. Blogger Matthew Ingram did just this for his friend’s funeral, but explains that his friend had had a special interest in social technology. Despite initial negative reactions before the funeral, Matthew says many friends appreciated being able to follow the service from a distance, especially if they were unable to attend.

Recently some people have attracted attention for taking funeral selfies. A selfie is a photograph of yourself, taken by yourself, usually with the camera on a phone. Some people take several of them a day to post on social media. Perhaps because of this, this style of photograph has gained a reputation for being self-centered.

It’s no wonder, then, that some people find the idea of a funeral selfie offensive. While funeral photography needn’t be intrinsically disrespectful – many photographers take beautiful commemorative photos at funerals for families to keep – the funeral selfie gives the impression that the taker is more concerned with their physical appearance than paying tribute to the person who has passed away.

There have also been instances of people playing mobile games on their phones at funerals. A game called Pokemon Go, a massive global phenomenon that sees players chasing and catching virtual monsters, has been getting some mourners into trouble. Even at a celebration of life service, having fun on your phone by playing a game will probably not go down well with the bereaved family.

It may well be that cell phones become more and more accepted at funerals in the future. There may come a day when it is standard practice to record the event with selfies and status updates, but there are still many people who would be deeply upset if you did this at their loved one’s funeral.

If you’re sharing the service with mourners who can’t be there, like Matthew Ingram, this could be acceptable, as long as you ask the family’s permission first. Otherwise, it’s probably wise to switch that phone off.

The problem with smartphones isn’t the technology itself, but that by using it, it looks like you’re not making an effort. Fidgeting with your phone, taking a call, reading messages or taking photographs of yourself might seem completely normal behavior in any other situation, but funerals are meant to be the place where you give your undivided attention to the person who has passed away. The best way to pay your respects is to give all of your attention to the funeral service. Wearing the right clothes, saying the right words, sending the correct type of flowers are all far less important parts of funeral etiquette than taking the time to think about the person who has died.