Everyone's heard stories of people whose lives end on extraordinary notes: The adventurous senior who goes skydiving to check it off her bucket list. The multiple-cancer survivor with an optimism and thirst for life in the face of adversity. The mother who dies at peace and without pain at home as family and loved ones are by her side.
But less shared are the tales of more complicated deaths, and the tragically sudden. The father and daughter who never said, "I love you." The best friend who was the life of the party but died the next day in a car wreck. The young lover who had a heart attack in his sleep.
These are the the ones told on The Last Message Received, a two-month-old Tumblr that has rapidly gained popularity for documenting people's last, often brief exchanges. Captured via screenshots from text and Facebook messages, the site has logged 600 submissions from users across the world -- many of them anonymous teens and college students. It has more than 1,000 more messages ready to post over the coming months.
The easy sharing of personal, often secret messages between everyday people isn't a foreign concept to Tumblr or the Internet. The founder of PostSecret, for example, parlayed a website of mailed postcard confessions into a popular brand with books and museum exhibits. Putting others' lives anonymously on display has become an art form as well as a business. Discussions of death aren't rare online either, with people setting up vast memorials to their loved ones on individual websites and social networks like Facebook.
For 15-year-old Emily Trunko, the creator of The Last Message Received, combining the two seems to have struck a chord. Next year, Crown Books for Young Readers, part of Random House Children’s Books, will release two books based on The Last Message Received, as well as an older Tumblr of hers called Dear My Blank.
Trunko, who lives outside Akron, Ohio, not only spends hours each evening scheduling posts for her website but also attends school online during the day at Ohio Virtual Academy. She said in an interview that she was surprised at the growth of something that began as simple curiosity.
"I've always been interested in other people's stories and lives. I thought 'the end' would be something I could focus on," said Trunko, whose submissions first leaned toward breakup messages from relationships that had soured, and later expanded to include half or more that are about death. Each is followed by a caption explaining what happened to the sender: a loved one who passed, a lover who disappeared or, in some cases, a victim who never saw an abuser again.
"I'm really lucky to let people trust me with these stories. It's something people don't normally share, and sometimes it can be harmful to share it. They don't always want to keep dwelling on it," said Trunko. Some of the most heartbreaking exchanges are ones of friends who die by suicide or drug overdoses. Since nearly all submissions are anonymous, there's little to no follow-up. In one uncommon but gratifying case, a reader sent Trunko a message through the "Ask Me Anything" link on her site, telling her reading the posts about suicide kept him from doing it himself.
"He realized that even if he thought nobody would miss him, people would miss him when he died," she said.
A few weeks shy of her 16th birthday, Trunko admitted she's more comfortable with death -- the physical kind and that of friendships and relationships -- than many people her age are. But more than changing her views on endings, the project has affected how she interacts with the living.
"How I send messages, how I talk to people -- you don't ever know when what you say will be the last one. Death is very real and can happen to anyone," she said. "I got a submission today where the last thing a girl said to her great uncle was, 'I hate you.'"
That post will be up in a few weeks.