One of my best friends died recently.
It still doesn’t feel real. The last time I saw her was the day after the Fourth of July. Her smile always lit up the room, but that night, the joy seemed to seep out of her, so much so that even the person who took our order at dinner commented on it.
Life was coming together. She’d gone back to school to become a speech-language pathology assistant and was on track to complete her program in the fall. Unfailingly patient, positive, and compassionate, her teachers said she had everything it took to excel in the field. She’d just become an aunt for the first time, too, and made the four-hour drive from Ventura to San Diego whenever she could to get to know this three-month-old with a gummy smile and a pompadour, who was now a part of her. And she’d recently fallen in love, with a guy from Missouri, whose Hinge profile she’d shown me last Thanksgiving. They were talking about moving in together after she graduated. Our high school friend group had yet to meet him, but she promised we would soon.
We never got the chance before she left us. It was a prolonged sinus infection that progressed into fatal meningitis. A “perfect storm” of events, a nurse later said. Everything went so wrong so fast that she was still wearing the magnetic eyelashes she’d put on to see the Barbie movie when she was brought to the hospital.
Perhaps inescapably, because we met in the 2000s, when social media was just taking off and phones had become cameras (and vice versa), the grief has taken on a digital dimension. To stop myself from being consumed by the questions around her death, the hows and whys of what happened, I’ve been trying to focus on remembering her life through these memories preserved in pixelated resin.
There is an overwhelming number of them to choose from, but I can’t help but feel what is missing. The Facebook replies I can no longer access because I deleted my account. The texts and videos I never backed up on the cloud. Obsolete media whose formats are no longer supported today. Underlying this sense of absence, of course, is the knowledge that as much as there is, there won’t be more coming.
Much of the digital ephemera I’ve come across so far I remember, even if the memories of what we were doing or where we were when we made them are just glimmers. But going through our old texts the other day, I found a few unopened voice messages I must have forgotten to play. Because I’d waded through so much of the annals of our lives at that point, I thought I was prepared for anything. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to those recordings yet.
I think it’s because the medium feels like it picks up a conversation in real time. It’s the message in the bottle of the digital age. You share a thought without knowing when, where, or in what time zone it will find its recipient. In that way, voice messages feel alive in a way that video or a photo—where a haircut, a t-shirt, or a setting betrays its time stamp—does not.
Voice messages are relatively new. WeChat, the Chinese instant message and social media app, introduced them in 2011, and they have been available on Apple’s iMessage since June 2014. Over the past decade, the technology, which allows you to send voice recordings over messenger apps, has rapidly gained popularity. According to a recent YouGov poll for Vox, 62% of Americans say they’ve sent a voice message (or voice memo or voice note), and around 30% communicate this way “weekly, daily, or multiple times a day.”
But the basic idea behind the technology has arguably been with us since the mid-1800s when Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph, the first machine to document sound. This soon gave way to Thomas Edison’s phonograph, which allowed people to record and playback sound on cylinders, opening up the commercial possibilities of the audio medium.
It doesn’t surprise me that once people could get their hands on the phonograph, they instantly saw its potential for preserving the voices of loved ones beyond the grave.
“The phonograph was linked with death from the very beginning,” according to Jonathan Scott’s Into the Groove: The Story of Sound From Tin Foil to Vinyl, which notes that the “idea of the preservation of a voice after death was a common trope in the phonograph’s advertising copy.” Most famously, the iconic trademark and logo of Victor Talking Machine Company, later RCA Victor, seemingly depicts a dog listening to a recording of his late owner.
Nipper, the dog gazing at the brass horn of a phonograph in English artist Francis Barraud’s painting “His Master’s Voice,” was the real-life companion of the artist’s recently departed brother, Mark Henry. While it’s been debunked that Nipper was actually listening to Mark’s recorded voice in Francis’ original rendering, recording the “last words” of dying individuals was a real trend, as detailed in newspaper accounts, like this 1889 piece in the San Francisco Examiner about a family who took a phonograph to the hospital to “cheer their mother on during her long illness and also to preserve the tones of her voice to comfort them after her death.”
It makes sense that Victorians embraced a technology for preserving the voices of the departed. The culture was steeped in death due to high mortality rates, and from funerals to fashion, Victorians came up with a dizzying number of ways to commemorate those who had passed (what historian James Steven Curl has characterized as a “celebration of death”).
Rapid scientific advancement during the era, which comingled with a burgeoning spiritualist movement, seemingly made the Great Beyond more tangible to mourners. The invention of X-ray machines made the invisible visible. Modern camera techniques like double exposure allowed for “spirit photographs,” which hinted at a world beyond this one. The phonograph presented just another way to thin the veil between the living and the dead, to help those grieving find new ways to connect with those who were gone.
Historian of sound John M. Picker has also made the case that because the phonograph was the first technology that let people record sound at home, its embrace by Victorians was “inherently more personal and interactive” than consumer responses to audio technology that followed (such as the gramophone, which allowed playback only).
We’ve come a long way from that initial liberation of the voice from the constraints of time and space. But holding my iPhone in 2023, the distance to these earliest phonographic recordings feels closer.
Like the Victorians, and many, many people since, I share that same human want that drove us to record sound from the beginning: to hold on to those we’ve loved and lost and miss.