Essay / Theology

The Vanity Google and Your Inevitable Obituary

So I confess, I’ve got my browser’s home page set up with an automated blog search on my name. What that means is that every time I load my homepage, it uses the power of Google to see if anybody’s writing about me anywhere. It’s a vanity Google search, but having it automatically performed by robots keeps me from having to say, “And now I will once again search the world wide web for any recent references to my name.”

Along with the actual references to my published work or reviews of my book, the automated vanity Google also harvests references to other Fred Sanderses out there. There aren’t very many many of us, just enough to keep it interesting. One of us was an important meteorologist who did something innovative with cold fronts; further back was the Detroit-based confectioner who invented the ice cream soda. No relation, as far as I know, but it’s nice to share a name with clever inventors. There’s also a fire chief in Shreveport, Louisiana, and a Dutch airline safety inspector –those hardworking Fred Sanderses usually only show up on blogs or newsfeeds when something bad has happened.

And then there’s Fred Sanders, the blues guitarist in Memphis. This guy is the real deal. He played guitar for a lot of the biggest names in blues and jazz, and kept playing in Memphis for decades. Hear him jam on Beale street in this youtube video, and check out his album here. Sanders (born in 1939) died this month and was buried last week. He had another album mostly done, and I think that’ll be coming out posthumously soon.

But notices of his death are all over the music news this month, and as a result, every time I load my home page I see the notice: FRED SANDERS, RIP, or DEATH OF FRED SANDERS or FUNERAL FOR FRED SANDERS. Once, as we sat side-by-side on the couch with dueling laptops, my wife glanced over at my computer and said, “Hey, get that off the screen! That’s not funny!”

Well, no it’s not funny. The death of a namesake is an eerie reminder of mortality. It converts your vanity name-search into a memento mori. It takes your question about fame and your name and turns it into a meditation on death and mutability.

It’s as if I asked Google, the great oracle of our time, “How am I doing,” and heard the oracle reply: “You are being buried in Memphis, to the sound of the blues.” And that little pingback conversation happens every time I refresh my browser. Which serves me right, I suppose, for programming a robot to ask about my name.

Someday, of course, an internet search for my name will accurately report that I have died. It might even be a search launched from my own pre-set homepage vanity search, vainly asking “how am I doing” and being told: Ask not for whom the Google obituary search returns results: It returneth results for thee.

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