My deepest sympathies on your loss, delivered via new media

After five people were killed in a freak accident at the Indiana State Fair Saturday, condolences came pouring in from around the nation. First among these was a message from Sugarland, the country music act whose stage it was that fell on dozens of fans.

“We are all right,” band members tweeted somewhat self-centeredly. “We are praying for our fans and the people of Indianapolis. We hope you’ll join us.”

Other show business figures were quick to join in acknowledgement of the disaster, as long as they could do it via the convenience of Twitter.

Kelly Clarkson tweeted “oh my gosh that is maybe one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.” Singer Michelle Branch said “just heard about Sugarland and the stage collapse in Indy.” Ryan Seacrest added “saw the vid of the stage collapse in Indiana … unbelievable.”

While these messages may be lacking in empathy for the victims — containing instead personal impressions upon hearing the news — they can’t be faulted for the speed with which they were delivered. Twitter has made it possible for us to be remorseful at the click of a button.

I don’t know much about Sugarland, other than the fact that they’re not the same as Lady Antebellum, which I had previously believed. But if someone as backward as country musicians can use social media to convey their regrets, I guess all of us can now enjoy the ease of modern communications to express our grief at a time of loss.

This is great news to me, as someone who always felt awkward hobnobbing with survivors. I am lucky not to have known many dead people in my life. I’ve attended only a handful of funerals in my 57 years, and therefore never quite developed the knack for conveying sympathy, much less genuinely feeling it.

As a child, the only funeral I remember attending is that of Uncle Buck, my grandfather’s brother. He passed when I was about 13. My only recollection of the memorials that followed was how appalled I was at the concept of a “viewing,” our visit to the funeral home to look and point at the lifeless body.

People in attendance seemed to be having a wonderful time, munching on snacks, laughing, seeing still-alive friends and relatives, and working into conversations as much as possible what a good guy Uncle Buck had been.

“This cheese dip is really good,” I think I recall a cousin saying. “And you know what else was good? Uncle Buck.”

I doubt I offered much comfort to the widow, Aunt Ethel. As a teenager, I didn’t really know what to say, and have long suspected that my “hey, how’s it going?” did little to soothe her raw emotions.

It’s a shame that my late uncle didn’t die in 2011, and not just because he would be world-famous for having lived to the ripe old age of 140. Here in the twenty-first century, we use high-tech communications to offer sincere-if-electronic condolences.

And it’s not just Twitter that allows us to instant-message our deepest regrets as long as they don’t exceed 140 characters. Now, you can even sign a virtual guest book and thereby avoid setting foot in those houses of death known as mortuaries.

Most local newspapers now offer a link from their obits page to a site that will record your thoughts. In days past, guest books made for wonderful keepsakes that families could take home after the funeral and peruse for comfort in the coming days of agony and despair. The electronic version is presumably just as soothing, assuming you know how to use the “print screen” feature on your computer keyboard and don’t use the back of recycled spreadsheets to print your hard copy.

And don’t worry if you can’t come up with just the right words. Instead of going to all the trouble involved in typing your own message, you can click on one of 47 “suggested entries” to locate exactly the right sentiment you’d come up with yourself if you weren’t such heartless, vocabulary-challenged soul.

Some examples:

“May God bless you and your family in this time of sorrow” (or, for agnostics, perhaps something like “may the dark void of eternal nothingness somehow manage to bring you comfort”)

“As the days and weeks pass, and as you return to life’s routine, may you continue to feel comforted by the love and support of family and friends” (or, the more-practical “hope you get a good insurance settlement”)

“Take comfort in knowing that now you have a special guardian angel to watch over you” (and the implied “hope you’re not afraid of ghosts”)

“Grief can be so hard, but our special memories help us cope” (or “might I offer an Ambien? — it’s a great amnesiac”)

You can even offer a poem or song as long, as the small print warns, you don’t use copyrighted material. So Longfellow’s “Nature” with its “So nature deals with us/And takes us away” refrain would be okay, while Lady Gaga’s “Disco Heaven” and its lyrics “Oh Disco Heaven/Get back Bunny!/It’s getting cold in here little honey” would be inappropriate.

There’s even a place that suggests what not to say, complete with testimonials from people who’ve had to endure the heartfelt but misstated wishes of certain block-headed relatives.

“I went to my ex-boyfriend’s funeral. We had broken up but kept in touch,” wrote Susan. “A neighbor asked me if his wife was pretty.”

“I am an only child, and I lost my mom in 2001 and my dad in 2004,” recalled Victoria. “A relative said to me, ‘So you’re all alone now, right? What a shame.’ ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

“My aunt told me at my husband’s funeral that I am young and will find someone else,” wrote Sandra. “Holy crap! I could’ve slapped her.”

Besides Twitter and online condolences, there are other modern choices for sending your sympathies winging through the ether.

Facebook is popular with some. Loving survivors can create a “death page” that mourners can “like” as a way of showing respect. I imagine there are also some Skype, LinkedIn and Groupon applications, though I don’t know how appropriate it is to offer coupons toward discounts on Last Rites. You could even use my personal favorite — Words With Friends — to send one-word Scrabble-like messages such as “SORRY,” “SAD” or “REGRETS” (bonus points for using all seven letters, not counting possible triple-word-play!)

I would assume simple texting is also acceptable. This might be another choice for those who have difficulty coming up with the right words, and prefer instead to send memorial emoticons, like:

😥 — crying, with an apostrophic tear

>:o — surprise or shock

D:< — horror or sadness, with a giant “D” pasted to your forehead

<°))>< — a fish, as in “he sleeps with the fishes”

Whatever media you choose, the benefits of not having to deliver your message of remorse in person are a welcome part of our new Digital Age.

And I look forward to the day when the showing-up-at-the-funeral part can become as optional as our communications. Imagine how impressed the deceased will be in that not-too-distant day in the future when you send either your own personal robot, or a hologram of yourself wailing inconsolably.

Talk about heaven.


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