Death is a part of life, and ever will be – but in our interconnected digital world, a lot of the communications, protocols and appropriate behaviour around bereavement and loss, are having to be rethought to work with the times.

Over the past 2 years, Facebook has brought me many joyous announcements of friends’ happy life events of course, but also on several occasions a Facebook status alert has been the way I learned about somebody dying.  Sometimes somebody I didn’t know – a friend paying tribute to a loved and admired relative for example… but in a couple of instances it concerned a mutual friend, and was the first I had had heard of their demise.

A bit shocking, really, amongst the Grumpycats and sarcastic SomeEcards my Facebook feed is stuffed with on a bad day – but it does make sense.  In the shock of bereavement many simple actions can feel unthinkably burdonsome, and the mundanities of making a million phonecalls to tell everyone they ever knew is a chore that technology can relieve.   At a time when connections are increasingly global and fragmented, and when practical arrangements have to be made and people let know quickly, it’s a rapid way to spread the news.

RIP on Facebook?So, what’s the protocol on replying, to a status update about a death?  Definitely NOT the like button!  Yes, this has been spotted.  However beautifully and sensitively expressed the announcement,  Like is a four letter word to be avoided in this event, surely?

I have seen some deeply moving and kind comments made on such sad statuses, remarks that will definitely be of comfort to the bereaved family, but I would like to think that those comments were also sent to them privately or even in a traditional card or note, where they are more likely to be read and reflected upon as time goes by… in the relentlessly ironic way the timeline rolls on, those lovely remarks could quickly get buried by more recent news and never be the support that they could.

What about the person who has died, and their Facebook account?  With 1 billion members this is obviously a situation not uncommon, and there is a procedure in place to deal with it.  One option is of course to delete the account completely, but it’s not the only one – a bit strangely, it is possible to ‘live on’ on Facebook, or allow your profile to do so, after your earthly death

It’s called Memorializing, and Facebook basically freezes the account, rendering it viewable only to confirmed friends at that point in time and suppressing from search.   The profile (timeline) will also no longer appear in the Suggestions section of the Home page. Friends and family can leave posts in remembrance.  In a way its new way for the family to collate remembrance tributes to those departed in a form that they can look back to, and it is more likely to bring the message to those non-mutual friends they cannot contact directly to share the sad news.

Obviously Facebook has to be careful not to do this to the wrong account, and they have procedures in place to prevent malicious or accidental Memorialization of an account.   Anyone requesting the procedure has to provide the email address of the deceased person, a statement of your relationship to them, and a link to some form of proof such as an obituary or news article confirming the death.  They also have to click past warnings about perjury for misuse, as well as some rather perfunctory condolences for the loss.

Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped some people being the victims of rather sick pranks along these lines, where a friend has decided it’d be hilarious to report their death, and simply found an online obituary to a person of the same name for example.  It’s questionable how closely Facebook actually monitor the process, because it sounds as though in some cases it is much harder to prove to Facebook that you are still alive and get your account unlocked and restored to you, than it is for someone to ‘kill you off’ in the first place!  If you do a quick Google search for ‘wrongly memorialized Facebook account’ you will find scores of indignant users who have had real difficulty contacting a human being behind the Facebook machine, and getting the to restore the account to life, as it were.

Of course none of us like to think about what happens when we die, but just as we make a will to express our preferences regarding our physical assets, it is becoming increasingly important to think about what happens to our digital possessions when we are no longer around to control them.  We will revisit this sensitive topic in future articles, but for now its worth remembering that even attaching a brief note to your existing notarized will mentioning your preference for either memorializing or deletion of your Facebook account on your passing, could save someone you love yet another decision to make at the most difficult time.


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