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September 9, 2009

an email i received, about death and facebook


A few months ago my cousin passed away. At age 28, Amy caught pneumonia and was not able fight off the infection. As the news of her death spread, her Facebook was filled with postings by her friends and family expressing their sadness. Although a couple of her friends have access to her Facebook page and one even (eerily) used it to post a status and add friends posthumously, no one has deleted the account. I looked at it today for the first time since her death and people are still using Facebook to share their important events with Amy and reminisce with each other about all the things they love and miss about her. There are pictures of her being newly added and tagged. One friend even signed up for an account specifically to write on her wall and will be deleting it just as quickly.

Before, we mostly shared our grief with those physically in our vicinity or people emotionally close to us. Now, like everything else, our grief casts a wider net and we share it with more people, more strangers. Also, it feels as if my cousin continues to live in the periphery. I can see what her friends and family are up to, just like I can see what my other (living) cousins extended people are doing. Every post brings her back into focus if only for a moment. While I was not incredibly close to her, through the postings I see more clearly the sort of person she was and all the goodness that a person can be. Her Facebook is her flower and cross on the highway, her Kensington Gardens. I have no idea how long it will last. A few months is such a short time, and the wish that a loved one is still with us can stay for a lifetime.

I'm not sure what this means. I just found it incredibly beautiful and thought I would share it with you. I'm still digesting and get tangled in all the possible words.


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Comments (29)

This is such an interesting thing. I first experienced something like this back in February when someone I was friends with on Facebook passed away in a car accident. I wasn't particularly close to him, but several people I knew were, and I watched as his page filled with messages of loving farewells. The idea of a dead person's internet profile wasn't something that had ever even crossed my mind, but I was amazed at the emotional outpouring on his wall. The way his facebook was being used as an outlet for all of those people's simultaneous grief was beautiful to behold, coming together to share in the loss of a friend, loved one, brother, son.

In the day's following his funeral I kept expecting that it would become too painful for someone close to him to keep seeing his profile, and that it would be deleted, but every day I was proved wrong. His facebook page still exists today. You can still see all of his old pictures, status updates, and especially all of the final goodbyes that were posted after his death.

I don't know how long Facebook can afford to keep unused profiles, but I hope it's a long time. It's as though after we die all of these little online profiles we have spent so much time creating become more then just way's to keep in touch with old friends. It seems that something that is as pointless as a facebook page can become almost spiritual. It can be a way to say that last goodbye you never got the chance to, and a way to remember those who have been taken from us.

It is truly amazing what people can accomplish with a frivolous thing if they have the right intentions.

Posted by: Drew at September 9, 2009 10:50 PM

There was a similar bit about this in a recent episode of Radiolab. Here's the link: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2009/09/18/segments/123088

The part I'm going to reference begins at 2:00.

Basically it's the same idea of "living on" in the web after you're gone. A young man dies and he leaves behind an email and a blog that his mother still holds on to. Almost kinda sad not to have that closure.

Posted by: Jack at September 10, 2009 1:14 AM

Uh oh... Anyone read Ben Elton's "Blind Faith"?

I mean no disrespect for Amy nor for the grief of her family and friends but this kind of thing always makes me feel like people are taking their online "social" er... "lives", for lack of a better word, one or two steps too far...

Posted by: Sergi at September 10, 2009 2:29 AM

A pastor from a local church passed on from cancer, but his fb wall is still frequented by friends, remembering his birthday, recognizing that he is alive and aware, and can receive the messages. It is an interesting view into the Christian perspective of death as physical separation, but not permanent.

As an Orthodox Christian, it makes perfect sense, and is a modern example of our perspective towards the saints, and the purpose of icons. A fb profile is the modern icon.

Posted by: TechSamaritan at September 10, 2009 10:19 AM

I've often done the thought experiment by myself. "What becomes of our digital life, after we die? Or after man disappears?" Email, games, profiles, blogs, social pages. Will family start picking them and keep them going as a memorial. Will it become an identity for someone or something new? And of course, could it become self aware one day? I just finished the excellent book The World Without us by Allan Weisman . Though the power will die soon after man is gone the hard drives and back-ups of the internet and computers around the world could last for 10,000's of years. Maybe even till new intelligent life or man returns. As we speak people are working on ways of saving data that will most likely outlast man kind.

Posted by: wipis at September 10, 2009 12:00 PM

Jack, closure is a mental thing, not a physical one. Prior to the internet, people had mementos that they left behind that their survivors could cling to. Just because the internet is around now doesn't mean that people still can't achieve closure.

Posted by: Clint at September 10, 2009 1:02 PM

One of my best friends from high school died in March. He had a Facebook page, but never really used it...but it makes me feel better (and by the posts, at least one other person) to leave him notes when I'm thinking about him or just miss him a lot.

Like Drew, I hope Facebook keeps the old profiles around for a long time.

Posted by: Ama at September 10, 2009 1:04 PM

I've wondered about this a great deal. What about those of us who have paid remnants of us on the web - like a Flickr Pro account, or a hosted blog or website. How can we expect friends and family to maintain those things for us?

Facebook should develop a protocol for handling the accounts of the deceased - a special status of profile - maybe grey. Could be developed for leaving memores and such. I wonder what their current policy is? I wouldn't be surprised if they were deactivating such accounts.

Posted by: kadavy at September 10, 2009 1:08 PM

I've experienced the same thing - a friend of mine from college died over a year ago. His fiancee to be took over his page. He still gets tagged in photos from time to time. It lets you feel close in an odd sort of way.

Posted by: Tyrone at September 10, 2009 1:09 PM

Eerily enough, my wife and I were just discussing this last night. A friend was killed in a cycling accident a month ago, and his Facebook page is still quite active. Heartwarming, but also disturbing to see his avatar appear as if we've mummified his body and are using it as a puppet in our shrine.

It would perhaps be appropriate for Facebook to allow "gone but not forgotten" connections.

Posted by: Hans Gerwitz at September 10, 2009 1:13 PM

A friend of mine died about a year and a half ago. People created facebook RIP pages for him and a bunch of people said their pieces, most of them starting like, "I didn't know Stephen well, but..." I didn't think much of it at the time, and avoided posting on them or reading them because I didn't want to hear what people who weren't close to him had to say, but thinking back on it now I'm sure his family would have appreciated seeing how much of an impact he made, even though many mentioned only impressions of Stephen.

Posted by: JV Andres at September 10, 2009 1:18 PM

The same thing happened to my friend and mentor Tom's blog when he was kidnapped in Iraq, and held captive for four months with three other members of his humanitarian aid delegation. When Tom's body was found, there continued to be an outpouring of messages from all around the world as comments on his blog:


Posted by: John Stephens at September 10, 2009 1:27 PM

This is something I've thought about recently, but not exactly. My mom passed away last December and I've been wondering what her email inbox looks like. I don't have access to it, although I probably could break her password if I tried hard enough, but I wonder if there's friends writing her emails or how long she'll be kept on some spam or bacn email list. Instead of being public like Facebook, its like this little locked box that keeps filling with things that no one can see.

Posted by: mae at September 10, 2009 1:56 PM

Mae, Ze, all

Thanks for sharing this story and for the comments.

I have long thought it would be a good thing to leave my passwords behind, in case something terminal happens to me. I'm thinking of a usb flash disk with "the keys to the safe", and some last goodbyes. Just in case. My friends and family are too important to me to part from without properly saying something nice to!

I just haven't got around actually creating it just yet. I haven't thought it would be timely just yet...

So just for starters, in case i never get around doing anything, cheers to you all! Thanks for the vlog, Ze, and for whatever you're cooking up. Thank you all family and friends. It's been great. I'd live this life again if i could.

See, that wasn't so hard!

think it would be important to leave your passwords behind in case of your death, somewhere safe. And by "somewhere safe", i don't mean anywhere on the digital realm. Print it out (and update it from time to time!) or save it on a flash memory. Give it to someone you trust. Or put it in a box somewhere where

Posted by: llaurén at September 10, 2009 2:30 PM


Posted by: Pedro Daltro at September 10, 2009 2:31 PM

This reminds me of a project I thought about with a programmer a few months ago. We were going to call it Death Note, but it sounded kind of dark...

Anyway, the idea arose when I was posting something on Twitter and thinking "What if I suddenly die? Most of these people will have no idea what happened to me. It's like I'm just vanished or something."

The reasoning behind this is that you create your profile on this software and you input different messages to be sent to different people in case something happens to you. That way, your Twitter followers, Facebook friends, forum members, your lawyer, your neighbor, your spouse, etc. can at least know why you stopped posting stuff and get personalized messages to go with it

"Hi! This is André. If you're reading this, it probably means I'm dead, otherwise I'd have confirmed my password link that was prompted to me in the two different email accounts I registered and via SMS over the past 4 weeks. So, now you know the reason why I won't be posting anymore in this 'Second Hand Porsche Dealership Forum'. Hey, this sucks! But at least I won't be caught speeding or pay taxes anymore! Have fun, people!"

I still think it's a good idea. If I communicate often with someone over the web, I'd like to know if something happened to him/her.
Just a thought.

Posted by: André Toscano at September 10, 2009 2:33 PM

My nephew, Luke Mehringer, passed away suddenly last December at the age of 23.

I had Facebook open when I got the call from back in Indiana where he lived, and my first reaction was to write 'mourning the great Luke' in my status. That triggered all kinds of alarmed FB chatter and many, many phone calls through which friends and relatives passed along the tragic news.

Like those mentioned above, Luke's page is still active, and has been a connecting point for his friends and family in the months since.

With Luke's birthday coming up next week on the 17th, I'm sure I'll go to his profile for awhile to meditate on his life, and post something there. No doubt others will do the same.

Thanks for the post, Ze.

Posted by: Bonifer at September 10, 2009 3:05 PM

This makes me think that the human need to memorialize has not yet been fully addressed in the digital age.

I used to keep the announcements and papers from funerals. They'd hang around my desk for months or even years. But some time within the last 3 years, I've begun bookmarking obits and the comments pages that many funeral services have now. Nothing is close to the wider picture something like FB has. But even there, the timeline continues and there to my knowledge is no, for lack of a better word, closure. Not everybody needs it, but it seems like it may be a good option for places to have "in memorium" statuses or classifications like another has suggested.

After a time, it might feel a bit vulnerable for loved ones to have to address things like spam or other oddities that might appear.

Posted by: boo at September 10, 2009 4:35 PM

sumalangitnawa.deviantart.com was a time I saw it happen - but that probably wasn't even the first on Deviant Art. She died about 7 years ago - I forget what she died of or how we found out, but she was young like me and a both of others on the site back then. And we were all sharing art and poems and many of us probably hadn't realised that we were young enough to die from anything. And that it didn't matter if you had a good heart or were working at being an artist. She still gets the odd comment, a couple a year - from people who were very different.

I'd always assumed that after I go my mate Simon who knows my passwords for things (or could guess accurately) could check my emails and things, tell all the people who didn't know me I was dead. Maybe by means of an amusing Out of Office message.

I often wonder about how we treat privacy after death - even to the point of publishing letters or material from dead writers and articles. I recently heard that there's a recording of Beckett speaking parts of one of his plays as a guide to actors, which he never wanted made public. It's now in the archives. As are Mozart's letters to his love interests. As are Richard Feynman's letters to his wives.

Anyway that's just a side-thought. I like the tributes people can leave on facebook or other sites. The combined happiness and sadness of seeing a photo tagged is probably helpful to understand that going and remaining are the same gesture. That would be the best interpretation I can think of.

Still, I can't help but worry about vulnerable, bereaved family members holding onto the online presence in a damaging way though - like people who never touch or move a deceased loved one's belongings.

Am I spoiled by fiction? Does that really happen? Do people do that? Or I am just anticipating the inevitable novels and movies? I've never really met or heard of anybody who did that in real life.

Posted by: Mark Noonan at September 10, 2009 4:58 PM

This made me visit the Facebook page of a classmate who died in a hunting accident.
It's been less than an hour since the last post, and reading down the page I actually started to cry.
Having this simple, live memorial is beautiful.

Posted by: Michelle at September 10, 2009 10:37 PM

There was an article recently in the Orlando Sentinel on what happens to your online accounts after you die: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/orl-asec-blog-after-death-083009,0,4900414.story

It gives suggestions on how to plan for the inevitable. Surprisingly, it doesn't mention mydeathspace.com - where myspace pages of the deceased go.

Posted by: Bonita at September 11, 2009 12:28 AM

First of all thanks to J and ZeFrank who make this post possible....

This ( and these ) story makes me think many thing at the same time.
I think about "memes" (see wiki) and evolution (see Darwin).
I think about love,family and friends.
I think about religion.
I think about illusion and many others things I've no word now to explain.
The overall feeling is good, like and intense emotions with no clear name.

I see also every one of you has great respect for life and "digital life" too.

And that is good.

Thanks again.

Posted by: Stefano M at September 11, 2009 5:46 AM

The same thing happened with one of my friends after he shot himself in 2007. Writing to someone after they're gone is a common avenue for closure, and I know how much it helped me to be able to see his picture, write a message and hit send. Especially with a suicide, leaving loved ones with so many questions. Even acquaintances are left wondering. It wasn't too long before I found out that another friend of mine had been writing him personal messages everyonce and a while. We then were more able to talk to eachother which helped too. Being able to write to him, or his memory i suppose, gave me some degree of closure, helping me accept what happened and grieve, so that moving on would be possible.

This was all myspace, but it's basically the same thing

Posted by: wren_arf at September 11, 2009 7:55 PM

A friend of mine passed a few months ago, and because she had been away at school, there was some confusion and speculation among those of us who hadn't seen her for a while as to whether or not what we had heard was true. I checked the newspaper, sent her an email, and even (breath held) called her cell. Her facebook page was loaded with wall posts questioning her situation, until her sister finally posted an explanation. We all go on her page from time to time and post our favorite stories, and I've been taking books from her Living Social collection and reading them in her memory.

Posted by: Rob at September 12, 2009 4:29 PM

see, Dad? The internet CAN be used for good stuff!

I love this. It seems like the first step into uploading your whole life experience into a computer for posterity. It does have a feel of immortality to it. I have not experienced it first-hand (and hope I don't, at least for a while), but I am thankful for the knowledge that people can live on, in some way, through the wonders of the internet.

Posted by: steph at September 16, 2009 5:58 PM

My cousin died in a car accident about ten years ago. One of his high school friends created a memorial fb page for him just this year. The number of his friends and family who posted remembrances was incredibly touching and was really insightful as to how much of a lasting impression he's made. I was surprised given the number of years that had passed and how much emotion remains tied to the past. It was a reminder not to be so cynical and that not everything on the internet is about what happened five minutes ago.

Posted by: meredith at September 21, 2009 1:41 AM

That's what I firstly have to do before committing suicide - deleting my facebook.. and twitter.. and myspace.. and blogspot.. and secondlife.. and and and.. when finishing, I'll probably reconsider the suicide..

Posted by: z at September 21, 2009 7:15 PM

My friend Tom killed himself in the last week of May. He had a Facebook account. However, sometime before he ended his life, he changed the settings on his wall, so that no-one can actually post to it. The last thing he had written on his wall was, "Hmmm... comp glitchy, may have some down time ahead." So, if anyone wants to 'write to Tom', they have to comment on that status.

I suspect that he changed the settings so that ... exactly what you are talking about would not happen. And that in itself makes me sad. Besides all the grief and turmoil that his death brings.

Tom was a private kind of person, but at the same time he was so kind, so funny, so entertaining - Always had a good story, with funny sound effects. And a laugh that as one friend put it, "only a mother could love" - and yet, we all found ourselves joining in.

One of his friends suggested that Tom would not want a Facebook memorial page, and I guess that is true. But I'm very glad that his FB account is still there. I miss him so much, and it helps me feel a bit more connected to him.

Posted by: Torchy at September 25, 2009 12:40 PM

The times are constantly changing. Because of this, the way we grieve also changes.
This is a very touching story, and as of this week I have unfortunately been brought to similar thoughts.
Thank you so much for sharing...

Be well.

Posted by: A. Willis at September 25, 2009 10:32 PM

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