I remember the first time a friend of mine on Facebook died. Not only was this person an online friend, they were also my best friend growing up. This was my first experience dealing with a close loss in such a public way. It was also the first time someone that I knew had passed away, yet still existed in a somewhat physical form post-mortem on the internet.
Mourning a death in the social media era is an experience that is different for everyone. To this day, I still get rather haunted when I see my friend’s name pop up whilst sending out event invites on Facebook. Social media has left those looking to engage vulnerable, both in life and in death.
What Happens to Facebook After You’re Dead?
At the age of 24, I have seen five of my Facebook friends die. However, not until recently have I pondered what exactly, Facebook will do with your account if you pass away. According to the Facebook Help Center, family members of the deceased individual have a couple of options when handling said account.
First, Facebook allows immediate family members to request that the deceased individual’s account be memorialized. Memorializing a profile allows only confirmed friends access to the page while the profile is completely private to non-friends. Many families may opt for memorializing so that the deceased individual’s profile acts as a virtual guestbook in which friends and family can share their memories.
The second option that Facebook offers to family members of the deceased is to completely remove the account. Sometimes keeping a dead person’s Facebook account alive can be too painful for their friends and family, and the removal of an account is preferred.
Additionally, there is an application for Facebook that allows a user to pre-record a message to their friends with the intention of sharing this message post-mortem. The app, called If I Die, asks users to select three close friends to be entrusted with your final message. After all three friends have confirmed your death; the message will be shared with your network on Facebook. Granted, not everyone wants to think about how and when they will die; however, this could be a useful tool for individuals suffering from a terminal illness. In this video, Adam Ostrow discusses If I Die and some of the considerations about dying online:
Another concern about what happens to someone’s online presence after they have passed is what the individual would want to have happen to their profile (not their family). We often write a Will, we may ask for a Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) Order and we may choose a preference for our remains, such as a funeral or cremation. Should we start planning how our Facebook profile will be handled post-mortem just as we would decide our life insurance policy?
In an editorial piece for ADVOCATE, Jesse Archer ponders this very concern. Jesse writes:
“Wondering what they might have wanted raises a question we may all one day have to answer. Another heady end-of-life care question alongside whether you’d like to be revived if you stop breathing or if you’ll donate your corneas. Do you want us to pull the plug on your Facebook page?”
Is it too morbid to contemplate your untimely death when you login to Facebook? Will you really care what event invites you are sent when you are dead? Or when you die in real life, do you want to be completely dead online as well?
My great-grandmother died when I was in seventh grade—she was 82-years-old. Edna Topp never used a computer. Not to mention, she passed away years before Facebook or MySpace were ever developed. Nonetheless, Edna Topp is still searchable. Her date of birth and death shows up in search results. Digital Census records show her prior addresses, children, spouses and social security number. If someone who died pre-social media still lives online, perhaps Facebook profiles and other accounts are just an extension of preserving our legacy post-mortem.
The Human Reaction to Death on Facebook
When my close friend Whitney passed away, I was devastated. Accompanied by my parents, I attended her funeral. I cried my eyes out. I hugged her parents and gave my condolences. And then I went on Facebook. Hands shaking, I sent Whitney a Facebook message. I told her how awful I felt that I never came to visit her at college and revisited all the great memories we had together. I hesitantly hit send—and then I breathed a sigh of relief.
That message helped my mourning process, and surely I am not the only person in the world to compose such a farewell note. To date, five individuals on my Facebook friends list are deceased. Most of these individuals were casual acquaintances; however, I started to pay more and more attention to how other people were using Facebook to express their feelings of loss. I’ve witnessed dead Facebook friends go from “In a Relationship” to “Single.” I’ve seen deceased friends be tagged in dozens of photos weeks—and in some cases months—after their passing. Friends have also checked-in themselves, the deceased individual and a multitude of acquaintances at a wake.
Is there a right way to deal with someone’s death on Facebook? As long as you are respectful, I would have to say ‘no’. I have gone through and deleted some of my deceased Facebook friends on Facebook. Others have been tagged in photos I scraped up of them. While I find it too personal to do, I have read countless public comments left on an individual’s profile. Some share funny memories, some simply read “R.I.P.”, others are birthday wishes.
Mourning the Loss of an Online Friend
Recently, while browsing my favorite food curation site TasteSpotting, I noticed that at least thirteen recipes in a row were for the same peanut butter pie; however, they were submitted by different users. The pies were all dedicated to a couple: Mikey and Jennie Perillo. I knew there had to be reasoning behind the pie, and there indeed was.
As it turns out, Jennifer Perillo is a food blogger based out of New York whose husband, Mikey, died suddenly of a heart attack. The couple met over sixteen years ago and has two daughters together.
The creamy peanut butter pie recipe was Mikey’s favorite, and Jennifer kept putting off making it for Mikey prior to his death. She asked her network of bloggers to make a creamy peanut butter pie for someone they love after his passing. The outcry of support for Jennifer was overwhelming, especially considering many of the bloggers who made the commemorative pie had never met Jennifer or her husband in person.
Jennifer’s online network mourned with her, supported her, and offered her many condolences for her loss. An event was even created on Facebook for the pie bake-off, fostering over 1,000 RSVPs.
The peanut butter pie story reminds us that, whether you’ve lived next door to someone for two decades or have only talked to them online, the relationships nurture by social media are real. Have you ever lost a friend or family member and used social media to mourn the loss? If so, how?