How Facebook Deals With Death

When my father died four years ago, we wanted -- as you would with your relatives -- to honor him properly. We wanted to give him not only the sendoff he deserved, but also the sendoff he would have wanted.

Luckily for us, he made it easy. For one thing, he had an extraordinarily well-defined and public personality. It's often hard to know what someone "would have wanted," but my dad was so outsized that there was no room for doubt. Still, his great gift to us was his career: he was an actor -- not a hugely famous one, but one who worked often enough for us to have a large library of footage from which to create a memorial movie.

As I edited it together, I remember thinking how blessed we were to have access to these archives of his life, given how uncommon they were for someone born in 1923. Later generations tended to keep more thorough records as personal cameras became more ubiquitous, but in the pre-digital age it still took much effort, dedication and many resources to chronicle our personal histories. Again, my father was inclined to that kind of effort -- we have dozens of albums from my childhood, our photographic youth meticulously organized and captioned -- but lots of people, myself included, are not.

No matter. We are gently but steadily being funneled into it.

I was confronted with the extent of our personal digital histories the other day when I was trying to remember both the exact words and who had said one of my favorite quotes. I couldn't find it on Google, but I knew I had posted it to Facebook, and so I spent a few minutes trawling through old activity to find it. And as I scrolled down, I saw the pieces of myself I chose to record over the past year. I saw how I chose to portray myself to my friends and the interactions we had through that medium. I saw photos, and commentary, and connection: the chronology of my life that I would never have bothered to do myself.

Suddenly, I realized the beauty of our collective presence on social media. Thanks to our shift in media habits, even non-scrapbookers like me are likely to end up with a record of who we were and who we have become. And when someone passes away, as a close friend did nearly a year ago, we can look back on these records and bring the presence of our loved ones back into our lives.

But death also brings up issues that are new to the digital age, and as yet unresolved. Do you unfriend someone once they've passed on? Do you leave that person's profile available for certain relationships, like "brother" or "widow"? Should a company like Facebook be responsible for maintaining the digital archive of a life, and, perhaps more importantly, do you trust them to do so?

Facebook's current policy for deceased members is to memorialize the account, taking out of public search and friend suggest options. Unfortunately, if you read the comments left on that Facebook blog, it seems that memorializing an account also removes the posts made by the deceased, a tragic -- and apparently irreversible -- thing if you want to use that profile as a way of rekindling your memories of a loved one.

So here we are: blessed with richly recorded personal histories, but running the risk that they are stored with a company whose purpose is not to honor the dead but to serve the living. I can't imagine these issues were contemplated by a college-age Mark Zuckerberg, but they should be now. In an era where Facebook has become the dominant repository of our lives, we need to be clearer about our options to engage with it in death.

This is obviously a highly personal topic, and everyone handles death and grieving differently. How do you think Facebook should deal with the accounts of the deceased?

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7 comments about "How Facebook Deals With Death".
  1. Deidre Drewes from DragonSearch Marketing , September 2, 2011 at 1:14 p.m.

    Great post, Kaila. I recently wrote a blog post that addressed some of the same concerns, and a few different ones, about what happens to our online presence after we die.

    I live in a town in which young people die at an above-average rate. The past year has been rough, and I have been taking notes on how my different online friends react during a time of tragedy.

    I am really intrigued by the social media mourning process as it differs from person to person. I would love to do a more in-depth case study on a specific scenario in the future.

    Here's my post, I hope you have a chance to read it: http://www.dragonsearchmarketing.com/blog/everyone-dying-facebook/

  2. Rick Monihan from None , September 2, 2011 at 1:22 p.m.

    I'm not fond of how they handle it right now.

    I think that the best way to handle this is to offer an option to family members to get a download of the entire history and albums, so they can look at it on their computers at will. It wouldn't be costly, and would offer some solace to the bereaved (if they wanted it). Facebook, since they make money from our lives, could offer this free of charge - sort've a payback to all of us for allowing them the ability to use our lives as a revenue stream.

  3. Brad Mcmillen from Shoreline Interactive , September 2, 2011 at 1:50 p.m.

    I've often wondered how death his handled digitally, Kaila. I was intrigued by your post and know I've seen some services online (www.thedigitalbeyond.com) that help people prepare for this.

    I've often wondered what would happen to my own digital life after I'm gone. Thank you for sharing some personal information under what were surely trying circumstances. It does seem odd that they take out the posts made by the deceased. Maybe a way to "save entire account upon death and transfer to some secure area for friends and family" would be appropriate.

    Again, thank you for sharing.

  4. Merri lee Barton from BartonMedia , September 2, 2011 at 1:55 p.m.

    An interesting and thought-provoking article. Thanks for posting it.

  5. Ann Balboa from Orange22 , September 2, 2011 at 3:59 p.m.

    Great ideas. Perhaps Facebook users could be given an option of a "beneficiary" so the email address of the person who downloads the account is known and undisputed in the future.

  6. Sid Liebenson from Personifeye , September 3, 2011 at 1:47 p.m.

    It might be appropriate for Facebook to offer some kind of memorializing option. I'm sure they can work out the logistics to turn administrative rights over to a legitimate successor.

    What's been bothering me is LinkedIn. There are a couple of LinkedIn users I know who have died in the last year or two, and their profiles apparently can't be taken down. It freaks me out to see LinkedIn post a recommendation to link to a deceased person.

  7. Laura Wooster baldwin from A Motion Response , September 18, 2011 at 4:29 p.m.

    When my brother died two years ago, I contacted Facebook to alert them to his passing (without realizing what memorializing the site meant). Just like that, all of his words were gone. I would give anything for the warning so I could have printed, copied and pasted, and otherwise saved this writing that revealed so much of his personality.