Column: What happens (online) when we die?

How we express condolences and remember our loved ones is a little different now. Like everything else, it’s on the Internet, de-privatized for the world to see. (Nicola since 1972/Flickr)

A little over four years ago, my friend Tommy was in a car with a drunk driver and two other kids when it skidded out of a curvy road and rammed a pole about a mile away from my house. The other guys suffered only minor injuries, but the impact occurred on the back right door of the ’99 Nissan Sentra, where Tommy was sitting. He experienced irreparable head trauma and died in the hospital a few hours later. He was 17.

The way my hometown of Simsbury reacted was pretty interesting. Usually, we get the rap of being the basis for Eagleton in “Parks and Recreation” (i.e., rich and self-interested and anti-Amy Poehler), but everybody rallied around Tommy’s family to let them know they were loved and considered. It’s sad that tragedy is the catalyst for community outreach, but the results of sympathy, empathy and friendship were kind of beautiful.

How we express condolences and remember our loved ones is a little different now. Like everything else, it’s on the Internet, de-privatized for the world to see. People don’t necessarily have to go to the tombstone anymore. They can leave messages on the deceased’s social media profiles instead or in addition to. There are, to this day, Facebook statuses recalling memories with Tommy, with Tommy’s profile “tagged,” but Tommy is not there to receive the notification.

Something tells me Mark Zuckerburg never considered a social media afterlife, his own online cemetery. Quite frankly, it makes me a little squeamish. I always envisioned death as something more privately mourned.

Nevertheless, Facebook has its own “Memorial Mode” that allows relatives to take control of the deceased’s profile. Upon proof of death by someone who is in a clear position to act as an agent, Facebook will take down sensitive contact information like phone numbers and past statuses, and solely allow Facebook friends to post to their wall. Additionally, the site will add the word “Remembering” next to the name at the head of the profile.

However, nothing the deceased didn’t want shared while living is available to whoever gains access to their Facebook. There have been a handful of court cases with Facebook regarding teens who committed suicide and parents that sought more information, but were not allowed to obtain it under Facebook’s staunch privacy laws.

Facebook isn’t the only site seeking to help relatives (somewhat) connect with their loved ones posthumously. Gmail and Hotmail will allow families to order a disk of the deceased’s messages upon showing a death certificate and proof of power of attorney. Photography website Flickr is similar to Facebook in that an account will be forfeited to the family of the dead person, but anything considered private while the person was alive will not translate into accessible content afterward. And different sites such as Legacy Locker store an array of passwords to be utilized come death; each one has similar authority as the aforementioned sites.

Where it gets weirder is browsing The Digital Beyond, a site aggregating other webpages “designed to help you plan for your digital death and afterlife.” For instance, “Afternote” gives people the opportunity to “record your final wishes for your funeral and digital legacy,” essentially a digital will.

Most people are probably typing their wills on computers nowadays as it is, but what contributes to the eeriness of these places is how specialized they are, whereas sites like Facebook and Gmail are primarily utilities for the living with posthumous capacities. Above all, we have now reached a point in the digital age where we acknowledge and show legitimate concern for our material and digital lives alike.

The Internet is changing the way we shape our legacies. Our grandchildren will not refer to yearbooks, photo albums or home videos, but rather our Facebooks, Twitters and Instagrams. This is but another installment in our ongoing engulfment by the screen, another nail in the coffin to our immaterial surrender.


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