After he graduated, he had co-founded a center in San Francisco that helped poor people fight environmental contamination of their communities. He had represented American Indians who were trying to protect their ancestral lands and he had worked with Alaska Inuits who were trying to stop a corporation from polluting their water supply.
Luke had a wife and son, and his Facebook photo — smiling in front of a mountain, his beard flecked with gray — suggested that he had reached his mid-40s happy and full of purpose.
It was fitting, I suppose, that I learned of Luke’s death on Facebook. A mutual friend, Hillary Richard, sent an announcement out to her Facebook friends in early June, before his obituary appeared in The Times. Luke was killed while traveling in Uganda, when a truck veered across the road and hit his car head-on. His wife was seriously injured.
After Luke died, his Facebook page became an online gathering place for his hundreds of Facebook friends. They exchanged updates on his Wall — including news about his wife’s condition — reminiscences, photographs and a poem by Rilke. There was a report on his cremation ceremony in Uganda. The post said Luke was sent off with Madagascar chocolate, root beer and a small “environmental justice” note tucked in his pocket.
Luke’s Wall remains active today. In mid-July, his friends celebrated his birthday there. “I am sure I am not alone in saying that I am so grateful that Luke’s facebook page has stayed up,” Hillary wrote, adding: “I cry every single time I am on here and yet I feel I would be lost without this.”
Facebook’s policy is to keep members’ pages up after a death unless loved ones ask that they be taken down. When the company learns that someone has died, it puts the page into a memorialized status, in which only confirmed friends can see the profile.
Until Luke’s death, I had not considered what would happen as my Facebook friends began to die. Facebook allows you to de-friend dead people the same way you de-friend live ones. I suppose you could view deleting dead friends as simply routine updating of the sort people have long done with their hard-copy address books. But it seems callous to look into the eyes of an old friend and hit “remove.”
There is something not entirely satisfying about an online memorial. Those of us who visit Luke’s page are not physically coming together to remember him — and we are not making the effort and expending the time that it takes to gather in person.
Still, Luke’s Wall works, often in ways that an offline memorial cannot. A Facebook Wall is remarkably democratic — instead of a few people speaking, anyone who friended the deceased can offer a memory or a reflection. It is also long-lasting: memorial services end after an hour or two, but a Facebook page remains. It can even be, in an odd way, uniquely spiritual. It is striking how many of the comments written on Luke’s wall are addressed directly to him.
I’ve decided that I am going to remain Luke’s Facebook friend as long as his family keeps his page up. It is a tribute to a good person gone too soon and a reminder that, as the poet said, his death diminishes me.