The Ghost in the Timeline

For Jonathan Gourlay, Facebook Timeline has turned his news feed into an online cemetery.


Facebook parades the faces of the dead before me. Its algorithms suggest that I connect with them. Sometimes I click the profiles of the dead and see their eternal scrolls being etched upon with Farmville requests. There is a ghost protocol to follow: fill out a form called “Report a deceased person’s profile.” The problem is that Facebook requires some proof of death — an obituary or news article or certificate — and my dead friends are from Micronesia, a place that requires no obituaries or paperwork. Everyone on the island pretty much knows you are dead without a printed notice. Long before the internet was invented, islanders were using the coconut wireless, a kind of communal telepathy that carries news at faster than 4G speeds.

Uncle Semester’s heart burst when he bent over to sweep some leaves away from the outdoor drain under the sink. The sink was a length of PVC pipe that ran from a small river uphill down to a little square of cement where the extended family washed clothes and showered. He was dead by the time he hit the ground and joined the leaves in stopping the drain. An hour later we had him up on a table and were fitting him with his Sunday best. We rolled him around, hiked up his dead man pants, and buttoned his dead man collar. I went to fetch some cotton balls to put in his nose before the flies laid eggs there. Micronesia is a tropical place and they like to get you in the ground before you curdle. When the funeral guests arrived, the women wailed and keened over his body. Uncle Semester was in the ground, in a quickly nailed-together coffin, less than 24 hours from the moment he bent over to sweep away the leaves. He left no last words or messages.

His grave is up the hill near where the PVC pipe begins (I always figured we were washing clothes and dishes in bits of dissolved Semester). The grave does not require a marker. The people who know he is dead know where he is buried. We will know this from now until we too are dead or beyond caring and then that’s pretty much it. There is very little left to remember Uncle Semester by after those who remember him are gone. Uncle Semester required no proof of life or death. Like most of humanity throughout time, he simply existed and then didn’t.

Facebook’s new Timeline design has a gorgeous, intuitive design and sleek presentation that causes users to become wonderfully, existentially nauseous. Timeline allows you to see your whole Facebook life, from “born” to “now,” splayed on the monitor like a dissecting-frog in a high school biology class. Viewing it, I can smell the formaldehyde of my own pickled life.

Timeline is the ghosts of past, present, and future all on one scrolling page. Instead of showing you the naked truth, though, Timeline takes you on a journey through years of Facebook bullshit (not that there’s anything wrong with that). From cradle to grave every bit of fake happiness, every thrilling “event,” every complication or party photo someone shared gets memorialized. Every morning I wake up, brew the coffee, sit at my desk and write on my own memorial wall.


A short while after Uncle Semester died, his young nephew Ezekiel died. The difference: by that time the island was enjoying broadband access. I wasn’t there for Ezekiel’s funeral — didn’t dress or bury him — but I saw the pictures posted on my news feed. He wasn’t yet forty years old and died after a long illness, leaving behind a wife and two young children. Although I have seen the evidence in the stream, it is hard to believe he is dead. His final profile picture occasionally pops up. I imagine him rattling his dead bones in a cyber-cage, asking to be put to rest. It’s a little creepy, but I don’t have the heart to defriend the dead.

To avoid Ezekiel’s Facebook half-life, I signed up with If I Die, a service that will post a short video or written message on your Facebook timeline in the event of your death. Except that it should probably be called When I Die, I like the app — it’s slick and easy to use.

What will be your final status to that strange mass of humanity that you call “Facebook friends”? This is a good exercise. Not because it encourages a healthy reflection upon one’s own mortality but because it causes a healthy reflection upon the meaning of a Facebook Timeline and the various ways in which we are linked to other people.

I have considered this message for a few long hours and can’t decide between “This page intentionally left blank” and “Namaste, bitches!!” Perhaps no message is the best message.

Before I die, I hope to spend my time in a secret spot in central Kentucky where I wander the seldom used trails. The place is a blind spot for satellites. So I roam untethered to my smartphone through the overgrown, prickly underbrush. I like the red berries that last through winter. I like the yellow birds and milkweed. I like the little lick that is sometimes silent and sometimes burbles with life. I like the rare mussels in the water with whimsical names like Pink Heelsplitter. In short, I give the place a hearty thumbs up.

The area is farmland that no one farms anymore. There are foundations for barns and houses, crumbled stone walls, and reed choked cattle-watering holes all given to the elements long ago. There is now the barest evidence that people once lived, married, grew up, fucked, shat, and did the business of life here. When exploring this tract of unoccupied land I have found two family grave sites, halfheartedly fenced off from something — vandals? deer? – and dissolving into the earth untended and unremarked.

Here lies Mary Withers and her timeline, which is a single, fixed point: “Died August 15, 1907.” Beneath the name and date lies this message: “She was ready to die.” As a final message it seems a bit harsh. I learn from the microfiche archive at the local library that Mary Withers was 83 years old, childless and unmarried. Her funeral was at her sister’s house, now a weedy snake-infested depression not far from the family plot.

Mary’s father’s name was interesting: Fountain Withers. Perhaps he is buried beside Mary. It is hard to tell. Many of the names on the stones have eroded beyond recognition. Eventually the dead shed even their names. I feel vaguely sorry to bring his name up after more than a century. How many long years has it been since someone even thought of his name or called it to their lips? And what good does it do dig it up now? Perhaps it is a kindness to the dead to simply close the window and forget them.


Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.