Why Are Memes About Death So Popular?

In life, three things are certain: Death, taxes, and the human ability to laugh at both of the former. Dealing with things, through humor, is built into human nature, so why has the human nature and natural humor of millennials skewed so strongly towards death?

The Tidal Wave of Human Creativity

With every generation, a particular kind of humor rises to the forefront. In some cases, this results in a running joke that was initially meant to dodge the censors, things like the Fonz having a motorcycle with him everywhere, or the entirety of Animaniacs. In other cases, such as the case of this generation, it leans into something a little more nihilistic.

This is nothing new: the rise of “everything is pointless, and life doesn’t matter” comes and goes, depending on the current state of the world, or the current feelings of the generation on that particular state. The rise of Dadaism, a kind of art where nothing mattered and all the rules were made up and pointless, came after World War I. In fact, its proponents often described it as the “anti-art”, and the majority of the best Dadaists ended their own lives as a form of expression, the ultimate form of expression in performance art.

The Background Noise Black Comedy Creates

That art of a generation is symbolic of the generation’s time, and place in world culture is an easy conclusion to reach. Explaining how that generation chooses to present and represent itself is a much more difficult one. Why are millennials so interested in death? Why have memes with “death” as the punchline become so popular? The “This is fine” meme goes around fairly often (its real name is “On Fire”) and the first two panels, or even the entire comic, seems to be an expression of that possible death obsession and depression many millennials are facing.

We can take this one step further: black comedy and gallows humor have been around for hundreds of years, and probably existed in some form even before we were recording and taking note of it. Black humor, quite literally, goes back to the Greeks, Aristophanes, a playwright, made use of it. Kurt Vonnegut, a man with no little knowledge of the craft, described it as “a response to hopeless situations,” the natural human instinct of “small people” to carry on “in the face of hopelessness” (Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut). Wylie Sypher, a professor of art history and literature, declared that “to be able to laugh at evil and error means that we have surmounted them.” We laugh in the face of the Grim Reaper, to prove that we are not afraid, both to ourselves and to the world around us.

What Pulling the Death Card Really Means

But death is not always death, and movement is not always what people deem it to be. On occasion, “death” is part of a more symbolic custom and order, not truly used to signify “the end of life as we know it,” but a transformation into something new. Death is symbolic of a change in dreams and tarot readings, a representation that is significant. It explains Dadaism: a push for change in reaction to the collapse of society and life as the Dadaists knew it. It explains millennials: a push for change in response to the state that the world is currently in.

Millennials are growing up to find that the world is not quite as great and grand as it had first seemed, that real problems exist in the form of market crashes, oversaturated job markets, and student debt, and they’re rapidly discovering that they’re not fans of any of that—but that they do enjoy a good laugh.

People have always used humor to cope. It’s one reason comedians are everywhere, and another reason that jokes and art like memes arise in response to a situation. We, as a species, lean very hard into the “laugh it off” angle, as much as a way to face the impending dread as to dismantle some of its power. If we reconsider the principle (that death is, in fact, symbolic of change in dreams and tarot), then we’re faced with this: memes about death are not only a way to laugh about what we fear, they’re also a way to express our uncertainties and insecurities, or call for a greater change.

Death = Change. What’s Next?

Ideas spread quickly in our heavily interconnected culture. Long before the internet, the telegram, or even regular trade scheduled between countries, there was often pieces of gallows humor—and these were, quite literally, jokes made upon the way to the gallows—that were considered funny enough or important enough to be noted down. After World War I, the world was interconnected enough to give rise to a movement that led to toilet installations in museums and a whole new chapter in the art history books. Now memes have become instantaneous mass movements that consumer culture will often attempt to co-opt or buy into.

Headlines of “Millennials are Killing the X Industry” have become increasingly common. It seems that everything about millennials must be linked back to death, for better, like the memes, or for worse, like people complaining about the group’s lack of interest in buying diamonds or watching football. The formerly “created” association with death has become an association that’s forced upon an entire generational group, wherever they go and whatever they do. A better approach (one much less likely to offend a large potential customer base) might be to consider redoing the headlines: “Millennials are Changing the X Industry.”

Death is not death. The symbol of a situation or an idea can sometimes call for greater weight than the actuality of it. Millennials, with all of their black humor and darker jokes, as disenfranchised and disempowered they might be, are crying out for change in the world as best as they can. And KC Green has updated his now infamous comic with the sequel: “This is Not Fine.”

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