A community of mourners gathers on Facebook

 

By Martin Fischer

 

 

“Melissa invited you to ‘Melissa Duke-Mooney Memorial Service’”

That was the title of an e-mail I was stunned to receive in early February 2009 through Facebook, the popular online social networking site. What could this “invitation” mean? Perhaps it was a slightly twisted joke from the fun-loving and joyous Melissa? Maybe not quite a joke, but rather a quirky event planned by someone who wanted to hold a joyful public gathering with family and friends long before being plucked away to eternity?

To my dismay, it was an all-too-real invitation to a funeral after a sudden, unexpected fatal illness. The Facebook form-letter-styled e-mail sent to hundreds of Melissa Duke-Mooney’s Facebook friends listed some of the particulars:

 

Event: Melissa Duke-Mooney Memorial Service
What: Ceremony
Host: Neil Mooney
Start Time: Sunday, February 22 at 2:30pm
End Time: Sunday, February 22 at 3:30pm
Where: Eastwood Christian Church


Below that was a link to a Facebook page where I could see more details about the funeral and the New Orleans-style “second line” parade to follow. There was a check-box to RSVP. Rather than being signed by Melissa or her husband, Neil, the e-mail invitation ended as any more innocuous communication relayed by Facebook, with an impersonal, bland signature:

Thanks,
The Facebook Team


While some social networking site participants choose to become online friends with almost anyone, amassing hundreds or even thousands of virtual buddies, so far, I have limited my list of friends to people with whom I have had at least some professional or other personal contact.

But I had never met Melissa, and, since contacting her for the first time a few weeks before her death, we had only communicated a couple of times through Facebook. So why was she on my list of friends?

I had learned her name several years ago as part of my ongoing genealogical research into a branch of my family tree that had broken off contact with my ancestors in the 1920s and 1930s after a series of unfortunate events, including a court battle over my great-grandmother’s estate. An elderly distant cousin who had been in occasional contact with my aunt had given me the name and address of Melissa’s grandfather, who had sent me a copy of his family tree. Melissa and I were second cousins twice removed: My grandfather was the brother of her great-great-grandmother.

It was a large family tree, and over the years I had tried to contact other distant cousins through conventional snail mail, but had come up empty. When long-lost relatives have somewhat common surnames, like Duke or Mooney, it can be difficult tracking them down. For example, zabasearch.com has 222 listings in the United States for Melissa Duke and 256 for Melissa Mooney, but none for Melissa Duke-Mooney.

After joining Facebook, I discovered a new way of doing family history research by using the site’s “friend finder” tool, which enables participants to search for specific names of people who have Facebook pages.

Each time I found a possible relative, I took the time to look at their Facebook friends lists for other possible relatives, and if their list included names of others on my family tree, that increased the likelihood that they were indeed related to me. I sent e-mails to both my initial discoveries and the likely relatives among their Facebook friends. Some of those I contacted were not related to me, but a few were, including Melissa, her sister and others.

In this way I was able to put faces on a few more names on my family tree. But Facebook also enabled me to learn quite a bit more about some of these distant cousins.

Although I had never met or spoken with her, I knew from her frequent postings that Melissa was a happy, hard-working, proud mom and wife living in Nashville who had nearly 500 Facebook friends. Her Facebook page and other Web sites revealed much more:

She described herself as a “whirling dervish with a killer husband and two pixies in tow ... living in the hood of NashVegas - trying [to] get the perfect balance of bright lights and cow town.”

She doted on her two young daughters, Nola Belle, 5, and Tallulah Jane, 3. (A few days after the memorial service, her husband, Neil, let all of his Facebook friends know that he had told the girls their mommy was having brunch with Elvis.)

In a 100-question Facebook personality profile quiz, Melissa had scored 93 percent on agreeableness, 90 percent on openness, 83 percent on conscientiousness and 78 percent on extraversion. She had at least six nicknames, including “Miz Moonduke.”

She worked as a publicist for a Los Angeles-based company that organizes press junkets for celebrities. Her title was “producer/satellite queen,” according to her Facebook page. And she had visited 87 cities in four countries.

On her Visual Bookshelf, she had listed 62 volumes she had read and had highly rated “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her favorite drinks were water, whiskey and wine, in that order.
 

Beyond Facebook, she was also the subject of several blogs. Various friends wrote about her past incarnation as burlesque artist “Bubbles LaRue” in the 2004 documentary film “The Velvet Hammer Burlesque” and as a member of a rock band, Deloris Duke. She was also the vocalist in a country western group called Junebug; a memorial video of her singing in 2001 has been posted on YouTube. And at the time of her death, online booksellers were taking orders for a book she co-wrote that is due out in November 2009, “The ABC’s of Rock.”

 
Melissa Duke Mooney in 2001 video performance.


The e-mailed invitation to her funeral had been jarring, arriving two days before an obituary was published on The Tennesseean’s Web site. The obit explained that she had died at age 41 after a short illness. But before seeing the obit, I had learned from the mediabistro blog and from her blogging friends that the cause of death had been bacterial meningitis.

Since her death, Melissa’s and her funeral Facebook pages have been filled with dozens of fond memories, condolence messages, poignant tributes and photos--a living online memorial. Just hours after the funeral, more than 50 photos were posted of the New Orleans-style “second line” parade that had followed the church service. One image was a literally wall-to-wall panoramic shot of the inside of the church showing the standing-room-only crowd.

It was clear that this woman had greatly touched many lives, but, regrettably for me, only through Facebook. Learning a lot about someone may provide some vicarious sense of acquaintance, but it doesn’t mean you really know someone. Following an online persona doesn’t compare to getting to know someone in person.
 

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