Death (and Birth) on Social Media
What happens to your Facebook profile when you die?
The other night I was scoping out my account settings on Facebook to see if it’s possible to make more than one profile page (I wanted both a “real” one and a professional one), but I got sidetracked looking at one setting in particular. It said: Modify your Legacy Contact settings. I wasn’t familiar with this setting so I clicked on it to see more. Turns out what “Legacy Contact settings” really means is: Decide what happens to your profile when you die.
Jeez, Facebook, thanks for suddenly throwing my own mortality right in my face…
Would I like to have a memorial page after I die? Would I like it if my friends and family continued to post on my wall, to share memories, or collectively grieve? Or would I want my page deleted? How would Facebook even know I died??
So many questions suddenly thrust upon me when I had not at all considered any of these things. I don’t even have a will in place and yet here I was contemplating how I’d like one of my social media accounts to be handled in the event of my death.
I closed the browser, appalled. But I guess this is life now. Things one must take care of when someone dies include: obituary, funeral, finances, social media. Strange times these are.
If you’re morbidly curious, like me, Facebook has a handy dandy help page explaining the options for how your account can be handled if you die. I find it a little disturbing that Facebook doesn’t use the words “death” or “die” though. They only use the bland and emotionless phrase “pass away”.
I suppose “pass away” is the more sensitive term, but it somehow feels more cold. Like they’re quietly whispering a taboo phrase under their breath. Just come right out and say it Facebook: DEATH. DEAD. DIE. Use action words. “Pass away” sounds like I just zonked out for a long nap. You might as well say “expire”. Yeah, “What will happen to my Facebook account once my expiration date is reached?” That has a nice Black Mirror-esque ring to it, doesn’t it?
Anyway, if you opt to have your profile page deleted when you die, your friends or family will need to contact Facebook to notify them of your death. There’s a handy dandy help page on that, too. To delete your profile page, Facebook requests a copy of your death certificate. If your family can’t provide the death certificate, Facebook will accept some other documents like your last will and testament and a copy of your obituary.
What if I die, and then all my friends and family die, and then at some point we are all just memorial Facebook pages?
I’m not sure whether or not I’d like my Facebook page deleted when I die, but I think so. You must know of at least one person who died whose profile page has turned into a memorial. Don’t you think it’s a little strange?
I think it’s strange, having a digital memorial for a person that lives in perpetuity. I wonder if Facebook ever removes memorial pages? What if I die, and then all my friends and family die, and then at some point we are all just memorial Facebook pages? That’s so sad. I don’t want to exist as a memorial Facebook page. I don’t want people posting that they miss me or that oh wow they can’t believe another year has gone by.
I want people to grieve and mourn the old fashioned way. I want them to pour my ashes out somewhere in the wild and maybe recite a poem while doing so. I want them to have photos of me stuffed in old books or hanging in slightly askew picture frames. I want them to share stories around the dinner table, or on long car rides. I want them to find my journals and read them and be entertained and horrified and intrigued all at the same time. I want them to remember the way I smell and the way I laugh and the way my face turns red when I’m embarrassed.
I don’t want them to be able to scroll back to 2008 and see that I wrote a post in which I complained about shoveling snow. I don’t want them to scroll back and see the dumb memes I shared or know I “liked” a band that doesn’t even exist anymore. None of that shit matters. The way I laugh matters.
This got me thinking about what else happens to your digital presence when you die. What about Twitter? Instagram? Gmail? I’m not the first person to have pondered these things. There are help pages and articles all over the web. Twitter allows your family to request your account’s deactivation. Similar to Facebook, Instagram accounts can be deleted or turned into memorials. Gmail allows you to designate an “Inactive Account Manager” before your death, or for your family to handle your account after your death.
On the other end of the life spectrum is birth. Births on social media are almost as strange as deaths. Aside from the hoopla that is pregnancy announcements and birth announcements and all of those photos showing babies getting bigger next to a stuffed animal, there’s also the question of when does baby get its own social media account?
Okay, maybe not when they’re a baby…but maybe when they’re a pre-teen?
I’m really incredibly super amazingly glad social media wasn’t much of a thing until I was in college (so glad in fact that I used all of those adverbs). MySpace existed when I was in high school, but nobody used it very much and certainly not in the same way Facebook is used now. People definitely didn’t put baby photos on MySpace.
But children growing up today are very likely to have their photos all over the internet before they’re even old enough to know what Facebook is. Parents post photos of their kids without their kids’ consent or even knowledge that such things are happening. How strange is it to think that one day your future employer could Google your name and find your baby photos? Or worse: photos from your awkward teenage years?
A person’s entire life, from birth to death and on after into memorialization, could be documented right on Facebook.
Something about that makes me uncomfortable.
I’m not a parent and thus I probably have no right at all to tell anyone else how to parent, but I do know if I ever do have kids, I won’t be putting their photos on social media. Something in this world has to be left sacred, and I think death and baby photos are it.
In case you were wondering, the answer to my original question is no and yes. You cannot have two Facebook profiles associated with the same email address, but you can make a second profile with a different email address if you want both personal and professional pages.
This presents a whole new option. Maybe I’ll let personal me die and disappear from Facebook, but I’ll let professional me be memorialized? Two versions of me, two versions of online death. Strange times, indeed.