Facebook and Death: A Love Story

As more of us join social networks, one personal story highlights why clear and thoughtful contemplation on what happens to our digital selves after death is needed

As Alexis Madrigal noted earlier this week, Rob Walker has a fascinating piece in the New York Times Magazine -- "Cyberspace When You're Dead" -- discussing the relatively new phenomenon of dealing with the digital estates left behind by the recently deceased. The full article is worth reading, as Walker explores the rise of Facebook memorials and the new industries forming around the intersection between stockpiles of "digital posessions and expressions" and "the banal inevitability of human mortality:"

One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000. Academics have begun to explore the subject (how does this change the way we remember and grieve?), social-media consultants have begun to talk about it (what are the legal implications?) and entrepreneurs are trying to build whole new businesses around digital-afterlife management (is there a profit opportunity here?). Evan Carroll and John Romano, interaction-design experts in Raleigh, N.C., who run a site called TheDigitalBeyond.com, have just published a tips-and-planning book, "Your Digital Afterlife," with advice about such matters as appointing a "digital executor."

The phenomenon of maintaining digital memorials is not new among tech-saavy Millennials -- during my undergraduate years, Facebook frequently served as a de facto memorial for classmates lost to tragedy -- and Walker provides some moving anecdotes of the ways individuals and companies are working to preserve their external, digital memories. Among one of the most compelling stories is that of Mac Tonnies, who passed away suddenly in 2009. His parents Dana and Bob were left not only with Tonnies' digital persona to tend to, but his ephemeral network of friends and connections across the Web. "The most remarkable set of connections to emerge from Tonnies's digital afterlife isn't among his online friends -- it is between those friends and his parents, the previously computer-shunning Dana and Bob Tonnies," Walker wrote. "Dana, who told me that her husband now teases her about how much time she spends sending and answering e-mail (a good bit of it coming from her son's online social circle), is presently going through Posthuman Blues [Tonnies' blog], in order, from the beginning."

But this synergy, Walker noted, is a "best-case" scenario for a digital afterlife. What if Tonnies' parents and friends differed in the online memorial they imagined for their lost companion? Should those memories remain forever adrift on the Web, a permanent mausoleum built on status updates and photo albums, if they provide pain for some and comfort for others?

"I know someone dealing with dilemma of taking down FB page of dead spouse," a friend tweeted to me after I broadcast Walker's article on Twitter. "He wants to move on, family says no. Trauma ensues." Twitter certainly isn't conducive to long-form, and she expanded on what turned out to be a heartbreaking story in a brief email exchange. I've reproduced her story below with her permission (the names of her friends have been changed out of respect for their privacy).

Jon and Sophie were high school sweethearts. They got married, moved west for better jobs, had 2 children, a nice life. They were nice people. Sophie lived just long enough to see her first grandchild. At the age of 47, Sophie discovered a lump in her breast. It took 3 years for her to die.

Through the pain and sickness of endless surgeries and chemo and radiation treatments, she made finding a cure for cancer her cause. Sophie campaigned endlessly for money for cancer research. She started a team of runners and ran every day herself for as long as she was able, as part of the Run for the Cure fundraising for breast cancer research. She developed a reputation for almost saintlike stoicism; working tirelessly for her cause, kind and generous to all, never complaining, loving and supportive to her family. Jon never left her side. When she died, it ripped his heart out.

They each had a Facebook page. Sophie's was full of pictures of her family: husband, children, brothers and sisters, aunts, cousins; and all the friends that went with a large happy family. It was alive with interaction. Later, it contained information about her running team and cancer research events, and comments from everyone who knew her urging her on, cheering her bravery. Her page was a testament to her will to live - and to her painful decline. Jon's page was full of pictures of Sophie. Everything he talked about revolved around Sophie. When she died, Jon used his Facebook page as a form of therapy, talking about Sophie, about his feelings, asking for support from friends. It was clear he missed her terribly. He had left her Facebook page open and friends and family began to leave postings of their memories of her, including videos and pictures. Then one day a few months later, the page was gone.

I became aware of this because as a friend of Jon's, I began to receive notifications of comments on his Facebook page. They came fast and furious, mostly from Sophie's family, some from friends, full of pain and dismay and anger. How could he?! Why had he not even consulted them? More friends began to get involved, mostly disapproving, then some in sympathy with Jon. Jon himself was completely blindsided by all this reaction. He was hurt. He tried to explain, said that he had thought she was best remembered as she had lived, not through a Facebook page. He found it strange to have her page there when she was not. Using Facebook as their method of communication, they told him he was thoughtless. They said he hadn't waited a decent amount of time. They had an almost Victorian sense of the propriety for how these things should be done. They complained he wasn't mourning properly. They felt he didn't care.

Jon is a good man, a kind man, and he had loved his wife deeply and loyally for thirty years. He couldn't understand how anyone could suggest he didn't care enough! He had made a memorial for her in the park where she took her dogs, at the bench where she sat when the sickness took away her energy. Every day he walked the dogs to Sophie's bench. He took white roses and left them there for her, under the little plaque with her name. He put pictures of the flowers and the dogs and the bench on his Facebook page. But they wanted her Facebook page, insisting that her own, original Facebook page and that alone, was the only thing that would do. They told him so loudly and frequently and in the excruciating publicity of Facebook. He hadn't deleted her page, hadn't had the heart to do that. So he re-opened it and there it stayed. Calm was restored.

This happened about a year ago. In the summer just passed, Jon met someone else. One day he changed his Facebook status from "widower" to "in a relationship". The fury erupted once again. This time he told them, in the gentlest words, that much as he understood their feelings, much as he would always love Sophie, he was still alive and he needed to live. The new status stayed. Before writing this, I looked for Sophie's page. It's still there, but just her name, her picture, and her list of friends. Everything else has been erased. It reminded me of a tombstone.

So that's the story of the Facebook Memorial. To me, the unanswered question is, when does one delete something like a Facebook page - much like the dilemma of when to finally delete the voice of a loved one from voicemail? There are no established forms for this sort of thing. And it's a fact of life that death brings out the most unexpected emotions.

The story of Jon and Sophie highlights one of the problems of digital life after corporeal death, one that's somewhat overlooked in Walker's story: Who decides what sort of memorial, if any, should stay? There is no clear answer; Walker mentions the idea of explicitly designating a "digital executor" to maintain one's online identity long after death, but it's unlikely that the familial or social conflicts over an appropriate memorial will disappear. But the story of Jon and Sophie somewhat legitimizes the emerging industry described by Walker and the need for clear and thoughtful contemplation on what happens to our digital selves after we die. No family should be torn apart by conflict after the death of a loved one, least of all over a Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter account.