Sunday, January 23, 2011

Facebook After Death

Something odd and widely acknowledged happens at a person’s death; not only do we tend to sit through a terrifically fictitious recount of that person’s life, sobbing through the sugary fabrications woven through an otherwise dull or less-than-perfect collective memory, we actually nod reverently as if these tales were true, and eventually, out of what we might believe to be a mark of respect or simply as a human reaction to only remember the good, we begin to accept it all as truths.

It seems that every person becomes a hero after death, which in turn distorts and disintegrates the actual memory of who they were. Surely there’s some staggering irony there, in our idea of respecting the dead, heralding falsehood over reality, despite how ugly or how disappointing it might be. Idealising the dead is hardly new, both in practice and in its acknowledgement, but how does remembering the dead change now with the creation of the online presence, something that outlives us, and something that, with all its candid images, vulgar wall posts and vacuous updates, provides an honest reflection of who we are?

Social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter have been forced to deal with the sensitive issue of deceased members, with an estimation of one and a half million Facebook users dying each year. A surviving profile page can potentially add to the pain suffered by friends and relatives left behind, with reminders popping up on the sidebar for users to ‘reconnect’ with a dead loved one, and relatives are now given the option of deleting an account, preserving it as an inactive tribute page, or retaining it just as it is. The current policies by these sites require proof of death, usually with the uncomfortable provision of details, and decisions remain entirely in the hands of grieving relatives. Critics argue that ideally users should be given the options in their account settings, of what should happen to their page in the circumstance of death, but so far it is up to those left behind, to decide whether or not to transform the page into a sort of online memorial. In such a case, the memorial often remains a brutally honest portrayal of a person; from boozy pictures in sleazy nightclubs to heart-felt rants and musings in the form of status updates, everything remains untarnished and untouched, which preserves an accurate memory of a person, something irrefutable and unmalleable because all of it is right there, digital warts and all.

I remember hearing once that a good friend knows to delete your internet history when you die, and certainly many people would be happy with the expectation that the memory people will have of them after death will be dutifully manipulated beyond recognition, but with the openness and candour that now constructs the nature of the online presence, it appears that people are more willing to leave an authentic mark of themselves, ready and ambitious to share with the world at least some facet of who they are, declaring and confirming their existence with every tweet and status update, announcing every like, every dislike, renouncing every ounce of privacy in thought or in habit and summoning every excess of exhibitionism, to offer what they believe to be an accurate portrayal of who they are, despite whether it should be respectful of favourable. Considering this, preserving this digital echo of a person seems like the right thing to do, in remembering a person in the way they wanted to be acknowledged in life.


  1. Here is the blog of Rob Chambers, who died last year. His children wrote the final post and left the blog on-line as a memorial to their father. It is good that the deceased can be remembered in their own words rather than someone else's.

  2. I've realized that all the shit-chat and likes and dislikes on Facebook is just a waste of time. I hardly ever bother to log in anymore, and consider committing a Facebook-suicide >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  3. I'm not on Facebook, so I don't know much about it. It seems to me ,however, that those who join Facebook like the exposure involved, and don't care about what happens with it after their death.

    Nevertheless, I think the user and his family should be given all the options for after death.

    The top picture is very relevant to the topic of your post!

  4. Loved this post, so absolutely true about how we sugar coat the dead and buried..

  5. A blogger I enjoyed following died earlier this last year. Her family first posted what had happened to her so all her blogger "friends" would know. Then after a while, they took the blog down.

    It is likely the case that many surviving relatives don't even know that someone has left behind an online presence. It is something I certainly have never given an thought to. Perhaps these social networks sites should be set up to auto-delete after a period of inactivity unless reactivated by a survivor.

  6. How interesting that some people would want their internet presence deleted after death, or that family members would want it deleted.

    It does make sense to give the person an option of what should be done with their profiles in the event of death.

    I spend a lot of time online because it's a way to build my platform as a writer. And in many ways I'm a writer because I want to have something of mine live on after I die. That's why I blog, and why I write. There's a purpose to it.


  7. I have had 3 facebook friends die in the last few months...kinda each case, their profiles have been left up as is... I am still looking to see an example of one that is officially "memorialized"...interesting topic... I like the way you stir soup...I follow now...break english in process...

  8. This is such a fascinating and relevant topic. Well written, as always.
    One of my blog friends died last year, and her blog - still up - is a beautiful tribute to her life.

  9. Excellent post. I couldn't agree more about everyone becoming a hero after death and I also vote for blogs and other social network sites to be deleted after a period of inactivity.