Messages to the afterlife

For an increasing number of people, the death of a loved one no longer means the end of the relationship. Instead, bereaved family and friends are keeping contact alive, even when one side of the conversation has moved on.

Hamada Setsuko, 57, has been communicating with her younger sister Reiko, despite her death from cancer two years ago. So far, she has sent more than 80 messages.

Setsuko was devastated by her sister's death and spent the funeral saying it was unfair of her to die first.

While Reiko was alive, Setsuko could never find the right words to express what she wanted to say.
“I never told my sister that she put up a good fight,” she says. “This may be why I’ve been writing to her to tell her about my true feelings.”

NHK’s Close-Up Gendai show canvassed people online to find out why some still send messages to deceased friends and relatives.

One man said it helped him clear his mind, and motivates him to work hard for his mother in heaven. One woman said it was easier to feel that her thoughts were delivered to her loved one if she types them out than if she offers a prayer in front of a Buddhist altar.

Shimazono Susumu leads Sophia University’s Institute of Grief Care, which researches the mourning process. He says one explanation for the continued communication is that interpersonal relations are getting weaker overall.

“People used to live as a community, but now we live individually, and only a limited number of others really mean a lot,” he says. “This makes the loss of someone important extremely tough. People nowadays want to restore ties with dead people through social media.”

Tech changes ties with the dead

It’s not just a phenomenon in Japan. Developers in the United States have created an app that lets people create avatars of themselves that can keep the conversation going post-mortem. Users of HereAfter upload hours of interviews, or even songs, and the app uses artificial intelligence to simulate their conversation after their death.

The developer says there are currently almost 500 people chatting to loved ones they’ve lost.

And in South Korea, a local broadcaster aired a documentary in February showing a dead girl reproduced virtually and “reunited” with her mother. The program struck a chord with many, but also came under fire.

“I feel like this is almost slightly cruel,” said one critic. “It reminds you of everything you can’t have anymore.” “This seems like pure torture, like reopening a wound,” said another.

Shimazono says he believes the experience was beneficial for the mother, but he urges caution.
“Experiences like that can have a huge impact,” he says. “I wonder if that influence will be wholly positive if it’s so easily accessible.”

“Grief care is a long mental process that helps people come to terms with the loss of their loved ones. During the process, we start to gradually understand what really matters to us. Sorrow is hard to bear, but it makes us aware of what’s important, and helps us achieve personal growth and better understand other people’s feelings. I believe that’s what really counts.”