How 1 Billion People Are Coping With Death and Facebook

Funeral Industry News Social Media February 14, 2013

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How 1 Billion People Are Coping With Death and Facebook

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“I think I’m going to go online,” said Cheryl, logging in to Facebook from her hospital bed.

She soon reconsidered, however. “I don’t know what to write: ‘Hey I almost died last night. What’s up with you guys?'”

Months later, Cheryl died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her partner Kelli Dunham still cherishes funny memories like this one. “She was kind of a smart ass,” Dunham tells Mashable.

The two represent a phenomenon occurring the world over: Facebook after death. Couples, families, colleagues and friends are not only coping with losing loved ones, but also interacting with the Facebook profiles they leave behind.

The situation surfaces a multitude of questions and concerns. What happens to a Facebook profile after death? How do people interact with a dead user? Should loved ones be able to access a dead user’s profile at all? What is acceptable online grieving etiquette? And finally, what has grief become in the age of social media?

As of 2012, 30 million people who maintained Facebook accounts have died, according to areport by The Huffington Post. Some studies approximate that nearly 3 million users have died in 2012 alone; 580,000 in the U.S.

What Happens After We Die?

So what happens to all those suddenly abandoned profiles? Their fate could go one of four ways:

  • The profile remains untouched, unaccessed, unreported and therefore open to everyday wall posts, photo tags, status mentions and Facebook ads. In other words, business as usual.
  • A family member or close friend may choose to report a death to Facebook. Upon receipt of proof of death, such as a death certificate or local obituary, Facebook will switch the dead user’s timeline to a “memorial page.”
  • A close family member may petition Facebook to deactivate a dead user’s account.
  • Users may gain access to a dead user’s profile in one of two ways: either through knowledge of the dead user’s password, a practice against Facebook’s terms of service, or through a court subpoena. However, per Facebook’s privacy policy and strict state law, courts rarely grant outside access to said social data. More on that later.

Facebook’s official policy for handling user deaths is the memorial page. In 2009, the social network began switching dead users’ profiles to memorial statuses, should the deceased user’s friends or family request the change.

Those friends may interact with the memorial page similarly as they would an active profile. They can post condolences and share memories on his or her timeline; they can view pictures and interact with past posts.

However, Facebook removes a host of other capabilities from memorialized pages. For instance, the profile is no longer accessible via public search, available only to existing Facebook friends. The page will not appear within Facebook “Suggestions.” In other words, the algorithm won’t suggest that you “reconnect with” a dead user whose page has been memorialized. Users won’t be able to tag a memorialized Facebook user in future posts or photos, or message that person at all. All automated app activity (e.g., Daily Horoscope) associated with a memorialized Facebook page ceases. Finally, Facebook reserves the right to delete status updates of a sensitive nature. For instance, if a user who committed suicide posted a photo of a gun to his head, Facebook would likely deem the content inappropriate and remove.

“Memorialization allows friends and family to post remembrances and honor a deceased user’s memory, while protecting the account and respecting the privacy of the deceased,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes tells Mashable. “Also, we do honor requests from close family members to deactivate the account, which removes the profile and associated information from the site.”

Interfacing With the Dead 

Image via iStockphotoitsxtian

But most users don’t raise a Facebook flag at all, choosing instead to peruse and interact with a person’s regular Facebook presence even after his or her demise. And they have all kinds of reasons to keep it that way.

Scott Millin lost his 45-year-old sister Nanci to breast cancer in December 2011. As her caregiver and estate trustee, Millin made practical arrangements before, during and after her death.

“My job was now to dismantle and disperse what was remaining from Nanci’s life,” says Millin. “Canceling her phone service, credit cards, trash service and email account were logical conclusions and decisions… The one thing I struggled what to do with [was] her Facebook page.”

He not only saw Nanci’s timeline as a testament to her accomplishments and memories, but as a curated tome of experiences she had chosen to share from her otherwise private life.

“I think Nanci’s Facebook page is a virtual cemetery of sorts for me, as well as for her friends and family,” he says. “Only we don’t have to navigate winding roads and marble headstones to get there. Instead, we just click from any device and see her, remember her, leave messages, and smile or cry at what was and what has become.

For many, Facebook has become a highly accessible (even mobile) vehicle for grieving and, ultimately, catharsis.

Kristen Brown met well-respected musician Damien “Khamelien” Rahim through mutual friend Chris Kirkpatrick. Over the years, Brown and Rahim became close; the latter even wrote and produced the theme song for her nine-year-old son’s YouTube storyboard (below).

In September 2012, however, Rahim was robbed and murdered in an Orlando, Fla. parking lot. Since his Facebook was not memorialized, Rahim’s friends still received notifications from his Facebook events many days after his death.

After two months had passed, Brown showed a friend the storyboard, bursting into tears upon hearing Brown’s voice. She had to leave the room to compose herself. “That night I messaged Damien’s still active profile on Facebook,” she says. “It gave me comfort to be able to say what I needed to, even though he would never know.”

“Facebook very much helped in my time of grieving by making it so easy to connect with Damien’s family and other friends,” says Brown. “We bonded and shared our grief… It helped my kids grieve, as well.”

For others, reminders on social media of a loved one’s death can be more painful than helpful. If a dead user’s timeline sits un-memorialized, that profile can appear in Facebook Suggestions, such as the “People You May Know” sidebar on the homepage. Their birthdays reappear year after year in the news feed sidebar, prompting well-wishes from individuals unaware of the death. Many profiles continue to surface in Sponsored Stories, which promote users’ activity and likes from months and years past (e.g., “Kevin likes Wal-Mart”).

On the birthday following Cheryl’s death, Dunham noticed a flood of wishes on her partner’s timeline. But rather than scrolling through a stream of condolences, Dunham encountered what she initially interpreted as insensitivity.

“[People] wrote birthday wishes that made it clear that they had no idea she was dead. Stupid stuff like ‘Have a good time on your birthday, Cheryl. You only live once.’ Really,” she says. “I started responding to all these posts with just, ‘She’s dead,’ but since Cheryl had over a thousand Facebook friends, this was not really a very good use of time. I also probably hurt some people’s feelings.”

Learning to Grieve on Social Media

Whether publicly or via intimate messages, people’s Facebook interactions with the dead mimic the grieving rituals we’ve held throughout time.

In Mexico, families honor their departed ancestors by leaving marigolds, baked goods and favorite possessions of the dead on altars. Similar to this Dia de los Muertos, Facebook users share cherished memories and stories, post favorite photos, inside jokes and “gifts” on their late loved ones’ Facebook timelines.

“People have built cemeteries and monuments in remembrance for as long as we’ve existed. Now those memories are digital,” says Margaret Carpo. Her friend died in a car accident in the Philippines in 2009, but her family continues to keep her Facebook Timeline active.

Western society especially presumes that individuals can overcome grief by emotionally detaching themselves from the deceased, says cyberanthropology expert Michaelanne Dye. “However, in the past 20 years, researchers have begun to explore the healthy benefits of maintaining a tie to the deceased… Considering this, Facebook appears to be a natural way for people to work through grief over the loss of a loved one.”

Dye also points to an evolving practice of identity construction, which makes dealing with grief in the Facebook era all that more nuanced. Today, identities are are co-constructed through social media interactions. “Therefore, the deceased’s online identity not only continues in the virtual space; it can also evolve and adapt as others continue to interact with the dead person’s profile,” says Dye.

Some of those interactions, however, infuriated Dunham as she returned to interact with her dead partner’s Facebook profile. She diagnosed some of Cheryl’s Facebook friends with what she calls “social necrophilia,” the eager scramble to prove one maintained a close connection with the deceased.

“Everyone always wants to pretend they knew the dead person better than they do,” says Dunham. “For example, one person wrote, ‘You’re drinking champagne in heaven with my grandfather right now.’ This was ludicrous: Cheryl was a staunch atheist and she had 10 years sober, which was something she wrote about a lot.”

Image courtesy of Flickr, CaptPiper

Andrew Ross lost his wife Debra to cancer two years and eight months ago. He feels that Debra’s Facebook friends seem detached from sincere grief.

“Most Facebook friends are pretty shallow,” he says. “There is not the depth of true emotions such as one would get in a real relationship. A lot of people respond in an overly emotional manner that seems to play on showing others how deeply they feel, whether it is true or not. It mostly strikes me as false and unpleasant. I got no comfort from the experience.”

Ross has mixed feelings about maintaining Debra’s Facebook profile and permanently deleting her presence there altogether. “At some point I feel her page should be deleted permanently. She is gone and it should be too,” he says.

Social media etiquette surrounding death is a delicate and highly subjective construct. What one person views as good judgment could translate as incredibly poor taste or downright offensive to others.

Julie Spira authored The Rules of Netiquette: How to Mind Your Digital Manners, wherein she talks about how to approach the “social media obituary.” In an email interview with Mashable, she praises people who honor the dead by celebrating that person’s memories and accomplishments on Facebook. However, she has also encountered instances she believes exemplify shockingly poor taste: “When a woman posted a photo of her newly deceased husband just prior to the ambulance arriving to take him to the morgue. It was grotesque and made many people uncomfortable.”

By this point, many people have learned that their friends and family have very different ideas of what constitutes “normal” grieving — especially when someone takes his or her grief public on social networks.

For many, grieving through social media is more comfortable than real-life interactions, which is why some people encounter what they translate as odd or callous behavior from fellow users. Dye adds, “Facebook provides a way for people to grieve publicly and receive feedback and support from others, while not forcing them to endure these painful interactions face-to-face, which, for some, might be an easier and healthier way for them to work through their grief.

“In the physical world, methods of mourning vary across cultures, as well as among individuals within the same culture. This also holds true in the online world.”

Grief therapist Lisa Leonard adds that grief varies wildly for each individual, and that it usually doesn’t progress orderly, like steps in a staircase. That being said, she can clearly identify the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) in her friends’ Facebook behavior.

But Leonard believes that social media can actually ease the process for some. “Being able to access the lost one’s profile after death is beneficial,” she says. “It allows a connection to others who loved him or her, a source of memories and humor to share and an opportunity to say ‘goodbye’ or ‘I’m missing you’ in a way that can soften the blow and move the healing along.”

The Law’s the Limit

But what if the bereaved feel entitled to a deeper closure, specifically, by seeking answers from or access to a dead family member’s Facebook profile? The short answer: Their chances aren’t good.

Families like the Stassens have entered legal battles with major companies like Facebook and Google in an attempt to gain access to the digital assets of dead loves ones. As heirs of their son’s estate, the parents of Benjamin Stassen feel they have a right to access his Facebook account, to search for clues as to why their son suddenly chose to commit suicide.

In the U.S., property rights vary wildly across the country’s 50 states and territories, and are largely dependent on a person’s location of residency. These laws cover the scope of many types of property: real property (e.g., real estate and housing), personal property (e.g. automobiles, tools, clothing) and intangible property — in other words, “things that have value and can be transferred from one person to another, but has no physical substance, like IP rights,” says David Ervin, intellectual property attorney and partner at the law firm Kelley Drye.

To complicate matters further, state-determined property rights can quickly enter a gray area when a resident has entered into a contract with another person or company. In this case, Facebook’s terms of service can impact an individual’s legal right to transfer web property, even after death.

Facebook defines user property in two ways: account access and content posted from one’s account.

“Users own the content they post on Facebook, and users cannot assign their Facebook account without Facebook’s approval,” says Ervin, referencing Facebook’s TOS (addressed sections below). “Basically, Facebook owns their service and determines who gets to establish accounts and have access to the service, while users are allowed to control and own the content and information they post.”

Section 4. Registration and Account Security

Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. Here are some commitments you make to us relating to registering and maintaining the security of your account:

9. You will not transfer your account (including any Page or application you administer) to anyone without first getting our written permission.

What, if any, of this access and content is permissible to outside individuals after the original user’s death?

Facebook maintains the right to transfer account ownership; it’s plausible this could apply to a dead user’s account. But the TOS is silent on this issue, says Ervin, instead substituting access to such accounts with options like memorialization or deactivation, reserved for next of kin.

“Memorialization exists primarily to support Facebook’s authenticity policies,” says Facebook spokesman Noyes. “Profiles are restricted to real, live human beings and the profiles are memorialized when someone dies because continued operation of the account would be inauthentic.”

Section 2. Sharing Your Content and Information

You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition:

1. For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

If access falls under scrupulous Facebook privacy restrictions, what about content, which is highly personal and oftentimes of a creative nature?

It’s difficult to subsume all the different types of user-submitted content on Facebook. The range of what users post is highly subjective, and oftentimes, wasn’t even ours in the first place — remember that web comic from your favorite blog you posted last week?

This is where copyright factors in, hugely. Only protectable, tangible property can be considered a part of a user’s estate and, therefore, accessible by his or her descendants, says Ervin.

“Not everything that someone posts to their Facebook account is protectable,” he adds. “Copyright law protects original expressions that are fixed in a tangible medium. This covers things like photographs, music, art, written articles and drawings. Short comments or status updates on Facebook would not likely meet the requirements of copyright protection and would, therefore, not likely be subject to protection as intangible property.”

The combination of unprotected content, account and access ownership, and inconsistent state’s rights makes the transfer of Facebook property after death a near-unapproachable beast.

“I’m not convinced that social media networking service accounts (and the access rights that are granted to the accounts under a written contract) are intangible property, or that the service provider’s terms of service can be undone by state property law alone,” says Ervin.

That’s why organizations like the Uniform Law Commission, comprised of licensed lawyers, draft legislation like the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, with the hopes of determining whether such digital assets should fall into the hands of executors, given privacy concerns and the potential access to sensitive data and information.

It’s a complicated question on many people’s minds — not just lawyers’.

Planning Our Digital Legacies

Image courtesy of Flickr, Schristia

As social media after death continues to become more commonplace, people are beginning to plan for their own demises in an effort to protect and preserve the online information they’ve cultivated for years.

In an emerging industry called digital legacy management, agencies like and My Wonderful Life help social media users make death arrangements. The latter lets users create “books” that log funeral preferences and major decisions before they die. Users can draft emails that will be delivered to designated recipients after death, create digital epitaphs for their real-life headstones and elect “Angels,” or loved ones they trust to carry out their wishes.

Similarly, with a Facebook app called if i die, a user records a video message or last wish, then chooses Facebook friend “trustees” to publish the declaration post-mortem. The company suggests posting a “bid farewell, a favorite joke, a long-kept secret,” or, essentially, a massive “fuck you.”

Others are more concerned with improving the tools on itself.

Spira has petitioned for Facebook to add a “deceased” relationship status option that friends and family members could control. She believes it would help alert visitors to a dead user’s profile: “If a family’s loved one can list that as their relationship status, perhaps it would prevent people from receiving an email saying it’s their friend’s birthday and rushing over to write ‘Happy Birthday’ on their timeline, or having their page filled with requests to playFarmVille.”

Dunham imagines a similar relationship status option. “I wish Facebook would offer the option of ‘widowed from ______,’ because I would really have liked to have kept the connection [to Cheryl], but it was too painful for me when people assumed she was alive.”

Dunham says it has been easier to cope with losing Cheryl since nearly two years have passed since her death. She doesn’t encounter as many Facebook prompts, suggesting she invite Cheryl to an event or include her in a group. Activity on her page has dwindled, and Dunham hopes people will remember not to post ignorant “Happy Birthday” messages on Cheryl’s wall this year.

Overall, she’s grateful for her continued access to Cheryl’s presence, even if it’s mainly digital these days.

“I’ve definitely spent some evenings looking at our comments back and forth in my Facebook friendship with Cheryl,” she says. “I had completely forgotten that Cheryl had posted, ‘I wanted cake for dinner, I got cake for dinner, I have the best girlfriend ever’ on her wall, but when I re-read that it reminded me of that evening and what a treasure it was.”

Homepage, Mashable composite. Image via iStockphotoAlexSava