Four Friend Requests and a Funeral

I boarded the plane headed for Phoenix. One of my Facebook friends had suddenly died and we were all going to her funeral. We were in her private Facebook group called BFFS, after all. That meant a lot to us.

Jennifer had stopped posting on our pages and leaving opinions in our comment sections. She seemed to completely disappear from the cyber realm in which we existed together, and we were all wondering where she had gone.

A quick glance at her profile answered our questions. Her sister Anne had recently posted an explanation online; it seemed our friend had been in a car accident. She was killed instantly.

Her Facebook page immediately became a memorial website, rapidly filling with messages about how much we’d all miss her.

Jen’s Facebook friends were invited by her sister to the funeral in Phoenix this weekend, and many of us agreed to attend. It was a sad excuse to finally meet the people we’d been getting to know online for so long, but we decided Jennifer would have wanted it this way.

Anne had been remarkably helpful in facilitating the attendance of Jennifer’s online friends at the funeral, arranging to pick each of us up at the Phoenix airport. She even made a deal with a nearby hotel to provide affordable rooms. I was touched by the kindness of the airlines and lodging, providing cheap rates and discounts for us all.

The funeral was scheduled for Saturday evening, so we decided to fly in Friday afternoon to have an impromptu memorial service and meet each other in person. Anne suggested this, actually, and rented the recreation room of the hotel we were all staying in to give us a large meeting place.

Despite the sad reason for being there in the first place, I was really excited to meet these people I’d been getting to know online for over a year. Jennifer had always been a boisterous, fun girl and said, “Any excuse for a party!” I hoped she really meant it and wasn’t looking down on us from the ghost world for having a getting-to-know-you celebration in the aftermath of her sudden death.

I deplaned and walked through the Sky Harbor terminal until I saw the sign with “Alexa” on it. That’s me, I thought as I greeted the driver. We drove away from the airport, passing palm trees and saguaro cactuses as we traveled along the heat-shimmering road.

The hotel was really nice and I couldn’t get over the low price as I got ready for the Facebook friends BFFS party. Make-up and hair to my liking, I walked down the hallway to finally meet my online friends in real life.

At the entrance to the large recreation room, there was a big sign that shouted, “Welcome Jennifer’s Internet Friends!” in a bold font. I couldn’t believe Anne went through the trouble to have such professional-looking signs printed up for this gathering. She really had her wits about her for someone who had just lost her sister. I felt momentarily jealous of her coolness under pressure, decided that was unkind of me and entered the room.

There were over fifty people there. An anorexic-looking blonde girl quickly walked over to me with a somber smile and introduced herself. A man with a large camera followed her closely, filming our meeting.

“I’m Jennifer’s sister, Anne. Thank you so much for coming… Alexa?” she said questioningly.

“Yes, I’m Alexa. Call me Alex. How did you know?” I asked.

“I recognized you from your Facebook pics,” she replied.

She gestured toward the camera.

“I hope you don’t mind that I’m having Jennifer’s memorial filmed by a professional crew. There were a lot of internet friends who couldn’t make it to Phoenix, and I want to put this on You Tube so they can feel like they were here. Jennifer would have loved it.”

“How many Facebook friends did Jennifer have?” I wondered aloud. It seemed like the room was full of people.

“Oh, this isn’t even a third of her Facebook friends. She was also popular on Twitter. My sister was a friend to everyone she met,” she said, shaking her head sadly.

She quickly had me sign a release form so that she could use my filmed moments in her You Tube memorial, stating it was just a formality. I didn’t mind. I had nothing to hide, after all. That’s why I was on the Internet in the first place, right?

After thanking her for being such a great hostess and offering my condolences on her loss, I left Anne and the camera guy to walk over to the open bar. I decided that Jennifer and Anne must come from money, as I ordered a free beer. I left my usual twenty percent tip because I’ve had that job, took a deep breath, and looked around.

Standing at the bar, I scanned the room for familiar faces. Everyone was engrossed in conversation, with Anne and the cameraman recording the memories people shared about Jennifer. Some people were crying in front of the camera while others laughed, expressing different thoughts on the loss.

I quickly drained my beer and ordered another one. I was really nervous about meeting all of these people with whom I’d been chatting so intimately on blog comment boards for the last year. We knew so much about each other, yet nothing at all. It was a strange dichotomy, and hard to marry with my usual go-to friendship formula.

I spotted Kaitlin. She was a sassy, outspoken woman with cool Nordic blonde good looks and one of those mouths that makes even the straightest girl feel stirrings. She met my eyes as I noticed her; the recognition clicked and her expression brightened.

“Alexa!? Alex! Is that you!? It is you!!” she squealed, and came running over to hug me warmly. “It’s so nice to actually meet you in real life!”

I told her it was great to meet her too, and asked her what she thought of all the cameras.

“It seems kind of weird to me, honestly,” she whispered under her breath. “But if Jennifer’s sister Anne thinks it’s necessary, then I guess it makes sense, right?”

I nodded and we stood together making small talk, surveying the crowd of people that seemed to be growing larger every minute. We noticed another friend we often talked to online as she walked through the door, with the cursory introduction and welcome by Anne and the cameraman. She refused to sign the release form. Brooke. Of course.

Brooke was petite, with pale skin and dark hair. She had goth vibe going on. She liked the Vampire Wars application and sent fanged fairies as Facebook gifts. She was dressed in her usual all-black attire, leather boots and wore her signature blood red lipstick. Thinner than I expected with dark under-eye circles, she looked like Snow White’s sister who freebased poison instead of eating tainted apples. She didn’t look like she ate much of anything, actually. Kaitlin and I recognized her instantly.

“Brooke! Over here!” We both shouted her name and waved her over.

She glided our way and stared around the room incredulously. “What the fuck is all this shit?” she asked us.

Brooke was a blunt person. She didn’t waste time on niceties in the written comment format, so it didn’t shock me that she’d work blue with her first sentence spoken in real life. I would have been more shocked if she acted sweet and demure, honestly.

“We don’t really know either,” I told her. “Jen’s sister Anne seems to think Jen would have wanted her online friends who couldn’t be here to be able to watch her informal friends-only memorial on You Tube.”

“Well I think that having a film crew at a private memorial is completely fucked up. I’ll probably write a blog about it when I get home,” she answered. “I’ll put it on my WordPress site and we can talk about it some more, because I feel like an asshole complaining about it here.”

We agreed to revisit the topic in our blogs and continued to walk around the room, drinking free booze and meeting all of the people we knew only from online pictures and occasional written blurbs. It was a strange sociological phenomenon that made me uneasy and out of my element all night. The whole thing felt like a weird dream I’d have after drinking and playing on the computer too late.

After foolishly moving from beer to the hard stuff and drunkenly slurring to the cameras about what a cool person Jennifer was, I hung out with my new/old friends and stumbled back to the hotel room late. I used the laptop computer I’d brought to see if I had any new messages waiting before I passed out, already dreading tomorrow’s more serious service.

I awoke the next day feeling hung-over and strange. I had the “Where the hell am I?” moment as I looked around the hotel room until I remembered. Today is Jennifer’s funeral. My stomach clenched with nervous energy. I was not looking forward to it.

I grabbed the water bottle I’d placed next to the bed in a burst of surprising drunken forethought and chugged. I felt like I’d crawled through a desert with straight vodka in my canteen and only cigarettes to eat.

After spending the day online chatting with friends (some of them in the same hotel), I got in the shower and prepared for Jen’s evening service, wondering if her sister Anne and the camera guy were going to film the actual funeral. It seemed kind of disrespectful and I really hoped not. I also knew I would cry and I didn’t want it caught on tape for all to see.

The funeral home was conveniently a few blocks from the hotel. Anne seemed to have planned everything out perfectly. Once there, I found my internet inner circle of blog commenters and we huddled together in a group with our fold-up chairs pushed together.

The funeral home looked brand-new, like it had been very recently built. The light fixtures were Eames-style modern, like hanging cream bubbles with brushed nickel hardware, and the floors were tiled in a rich chocolate brown. The shiny, black coffin was up front on a huge stone table—it almost seemed like an altar—placed on a shaggy, furry cream rug. White roses in silver vases and deep red candles covered every surface, flames flickering. It didn’t have the seventies, drab wood paneling feel of most funeral homes. It felt like MTV Death Cribs.

I could see Jennifer lying peacefully in the coffin, just the very top bit of her pretty face. She looked like she was sleeping. Her hair looked great. I’d never been to an open-casket funeral and thought the dead would look much worse than she did. She was holding a bouquet of white roses and wearing dark red dress that matched the candles. I had no idea that death could be such a fashion statement and was once again impressed with Jennifer’s sister for her amazing attention to detail.

I noticed the Guns ‘N’ Roses song “November Rain” was playing through overhead speakers. How unbearably trite, I thought to myself, vowing to write down the songs I wanted to be played at my own funeral.

As we waited for some sort of religious leader to walk to the front and start the proceedings, I realized I didn’t know to which religion Jennifer belonged. I realized that I didn’t even know her last name; where she grew up or where she went to school. It hit me that I really didn’t know anything about her, or any of the other living people in the room, for that matter.

I was suddenly overcome by the urge to run out of the funeral home back to the hotel. This was all starting to feel really weird. I looked around uneasily and noticed many other people murmuring to each other, with confused faces like mine.

Before I could bolt (or more likely, discuss bolting with my friends), Anne walked to the front of the room with a cameraman behind her, filming every word. She said loudly, “I have an announcement to make and all I ask is that everyone here please listen to every word before you rise to judgment.”

The murmuring stopped and the room was silent in anticipation. Anne nodded, smiled and continued addressing the room.

“This is not actually a funeral and I am not actually Jennifer’s sister. My name is Anne, but I work for a television network. This event we’ve been filming is the pilot for a new reality show that we are hoping will be a really big hit. Those of you who signed the waivers will be featured on the first episode. It’s called Virtual 2 Reality and the premise of the show is to help people who have met solely through social networking websites meet in real life for the first time. We think it will be a fascinating sociological study of the new ways we make friends via the Internet and… most importantly… really great television!”

We stared at each other with mouths agape in disbelief as she continued.

“We didn’t mean to trick you, but we didn’t think as many of you would agree to come if it wasn’t for a serious reason. We apologize for the scare and you will be reimbursed for your travel expenses, as well as paid a respectable fee for your camera time. And I think you will all be happy to know that Jennifer is an actress who is alive and quite well!”

She clapped her hands and Jennifer, who had up until this moment remained motionless in the coffin, suddenly sat up and smiled, waving at the room full of people, still seated in our chairs in shocked silence. Someone started to clap along with Anne, and soon much of the room broke out in applause.

Some people sat still with furious hands in their laps, and some people were crying tears of relief, but overall, the group seemed to recover from the shock very quickly.

People jumped up and ran over to Jennifer as she climbed out of the coffin for hugs. I could see them already vying for their fifteen minutes, schmoozing Anne and the cameraman, giving interviews and reactions to the bogus funeral. Kaitlin was up front, laughing and smiling for the camera, and I was shocked. I never pegged her as an attention whore.

You know the people I mentioned, the ones who were not clapping and furious? Yeah, I was one of those. I looked at Brooke, who had more color on her pancake-pale face than I’d ever seen. She hissed, “This is fucking bullshit. I’m out of here, Alex,” and stood up. I followed.

We went straight to the hotel bar and got ridiculously drunk. We talked for hours and exchanged phone numbers, vowing to make a point of getting together in person at least once a year. We hugged at the end of the night and went to our rooms to sleep it off before the morning flights Anne had booked for us.

I arrived early at the airport, got a cup of coffee at Starbucks, cursing their moronic sizing system as I asked the snooty barista for, “I don’t know, a really big one, I guess,” with a roll of my eyes. I found a table and opened up my laptop. I had one hell of a crazy blog to write.