In Defense of the Model Who Posed by Her Dad's Casket

The internet's latest outrage is old and misunderstood. Here's why funeral selfies are a sign of something healthy.

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A woman posed for photos in front of her father’s casket. The internet is on fire.

Just to be clear on what we're talking about, I'll show you a glimpse of it. But I am not here to indulge this. Rather, I am here as perhaps the world’s greatest authority on this very specific subject.

In Defense of the Model Who Posed by Her Dad's Casket

Why am I such an authority? Because in 2013, I created a Tumblr called “Selfies At Funerals” that also set the internet on fire, and led to reporters calling me about the subject for years. In fact, just a few weeks ago, a GQ reporter called to ask my opinion on the 20th anniversary of Zoolander, because Zoolander took shameless selfies. Kinda like at a funeral.

I shall now marshal my many years of experience towards one end: I will defend Jayne Rivera, the woman posing in front of her father’s casket, because I think everyone's getting the story wrong.

This isn’t a tale of one person’s photos, and whether they are “vile” or “sad and mentally distorted”.

It’s a tale of our collective (and probably willful) misunderstanding of each other. And our inability to manage change.

Selfies Then, Selfies Now

Here’s the short history — of my own story, and then Rivera’s.

Eight years ago, my wife and I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I noticed people taking selfies of themselves in front of the building — an odd way, I thought, to memorialize such a somber place. It got me wondering about where else people take selfies, and a quick search on Instagram and Twitter revealed many: People took selfies at Chernobyl, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan, and more.

But above all, they took selfies at funerals. So, so many selfies at funerals.

I collected many of these images and published them (with names blocked out) on 2013 on a Tumblr called Selfies At Funerals. (It still exists, but the photos have since disappeared — the result of my original photo hosting service going out of business.) Before I’d even had time to share it with anyone, Business Insider (as it was then known) found and shared it. From there, the world was on alert. CNBC, Good Morning America, Slate, and more covered it. Weird Al included funeral selfies in a song. When Barack Obama took a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial, the Guardian had me write about it.

When people asked if I made the site to highlight Kids Today and the Terrible Things They Do, I said no. That wasn’t my intention. Sure, I thought there was something kind of funny about the whole thing. But I was also intrigued by how normal it seemed for young people to post these photos, and how normal it was for their friends to see them. The photos only became abnormal when older people looked in and judged them.

I wrote this in the Guardian:

Had my parents' or grandparents' generation grown up with the kind of social media tools that today's teens have, they'd have done equally embarrassing things for all the world to see. This isn't the nature of kids today; it's just the nature of kids.

Now, eight years later, I am sad (though unsurprised) to report that my cold take on funeral selfies did not forever calm all the hot takes.

This week, a 20-year-old woman named Jayne Rivera posed in front of her father’s open casket. The photos had a modeling quality to them. She posted them online with a caption expressing grief for the loss of her father.

Media outlets describe Rivera as alternately a model or an influencer, which may or may not be accurate. I do not know her or her occupation, but am reminded that media outlets very recently called murder victim Gabby Petito an “influencer” even though, as Ryan Broderick rightly pointed out in his Garbage Day newsletter, she had about 1,000 followers at the time of her death. A young woman, by virtue of having an Instagram account, was reduced to “influencer.” Maybe that’s happening again?

Either way, Rivera is now the subject of widespread ridicule — and being held up, as so many young people are when they’re caught in the moral panic sawmill, as evidence of Something Wrong. What’s wrong, exactly? Something about the internet and kids and morals. You get the idea. Something's wrong.

Here’s how she explained her photos to NBC:

Everyone handles the loss of a loved one in their own ways; some are more traditional while others might come across as taboo. For me, I treated the celebration as if my father was right next to me, posing for the camera as he had done on many occasions prior.

She says her father would have approved of the images. She did it, she said, “with the best intentions.”

Why She’s Right

First of all: Who cares about all this? The world should have better things to do than worry about how one woman grieves the loss of her father. Again: She lost her father. Isn’t that enough?

But here we are anyway, talking about all this. So I’ll try to make it meaningful.

I have had many years to think about funeral selfies, and why people (especially young people) take them. And I have concluded this: Grief is difficult. Expression of that grief is in some ways even more difficult. And sometimes — maybe oftentimes — people simply do not have the words to express how they feel about grief or anything else.

But they do have a familiar and comfortable means of reaching their community and expressing their feelings, and a quick way to not feel alone. So maybe they turn the camera on themselves, to bring others along with them. They share what feels right, in a way that feels right, which is really all you can ask of anybody.

The problem with the internet is not that it facilitates sharing. The problem, such as it is, is that it enables context-free consumption. I can find some high schooler’s Instagram right now and judge them on what they’re doing, even though I do not understand them or their lives.

The problem, in other words, isn’t generally with the people posting things. It’s with everyone else — the people reacting to things.

Do funeral selfies look weird to outsiders? Sure! But also, when the waltz became a popular dance in Europe in the early 1800s, older generations thought it was a disgusting scandal. Today, we think of the waltz as exceedingly proper. There is no universal taste; there are no forever-set standards. Today’s selfie is tomorrow’s formality.

So here’s my proposal: First of all, don’t tell someone how to grieve the loss of a parent.

But moreso: Remember that, no matter what you encounter in this world, you are not the standard bearer for how things should be done. You are simply the product of how things once were done — and you, and everything you know, will be replaced by new things that are unfamiliar but also perfectly fine.

This is simply how it has to be. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the world we have now. We would have stayed locked in place at a time before the waltz. The cost of progress is selfies at funerals. And really, when we’re being serious about it, that is no cost at all.


While we're talking about things people get wrong...

You know that scary story people tell about how dopamine turns us all into social media addicts? I called one of the world's leading dopamine experts. That story is nonsense. It's all in the new episode of my podcast.


*You can always find past Build For Tomorrow stories and subscribe to new ones on Bulletin, and get even more optimism on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and my podcast*