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How to Manage Your Online Afterlife

The week before Christmas, I looked at my birthday notifications on Facebook and saw that it was my friend Chris’s birthday. Facebook has this new feature that allows you to wish your friends happy birthday without even visiting their walls. But because I know some people post fake birthdays to protect their privacy, if I don’t actually know someone’s birthday, I check his wall to see if other people have wished him happy birthday, hoping that if 20 others have, it may actually be his birthday. I had FB messaged Chris a few months earlier and hadn’t heard back, so I wanted to visit his wall to see what he was up to anyway.

He was dead.

I was so shocked to receive a birthday notification for a friend who had died seven months earlier that I expressed my frustration in a Facebook status update. I suggested that Facebook should have a way of notifying friends when someone dies, some kind of “tribute” function. (Of course, then there would be that chance that someone would post a tribute for someone who wasn’t dead, whom they wish were dead. That could be problematic.) It just seemed WRONG that I was receiving notifications to “Wish Chris Happy Birthday!”

I was surprised by the responses to my status update. One friend said, “I’m sorry abt ur friend…but I think finding out if our friends are alive is kind of up to us more than FB.” and another: “I think the bigger problem here is: how come you don’t know he is dead if he is a real friend …”

These comments left me feeling like, “If you really cared about your friend, you would know if he was alive or dead.” But Chris wasn’t a close friend. He was someone I went on a few dates with more than a decade ago, someone who convinced me that if I wanted to learn the craft of writing, I should become a reporter (I wanted to write for women’s magazines at the time). He was a journalist himself, and I took his advice and got a job as a newspaper reporter and stuck with that for the following three years. So he had a big impact on my life and my writing career. After I left LA and moved to the Bay Area, we talked or e-mailed a couple of times a year, then not at all for a while, until he joined Facebook. A few months after he friended me, I messaged him, mentioning how sad it was that the wife of someone we once knew in common had died of cancer. I had no idea that Chris himself had died—soon after he had joined Facebook. We knew just one person in common, and I was no longer in touch with her. (I am now; I found her on Facebook.)

A friend of mine said to me last week that she thought it was nice that some people use the Facebook profiles of friends who have died to write tributes to them. Maybe for people close to that person it is nice—like when my siblings and I thought it was nice to keep the recording of my mother’s voice on my dad’s voicemail for thirteen years after she died. Other people thought it was creepy. And I find it a little creepy (and so heartbreaking!) to visit Chris’s page and see that his relationship status is “engaged,” to see who is “current” employer is, to be reminded where he “lives” and when his birthday is. It’s as if he weren’t dead but frozen in time.

So what can you do about this? You can create an online will. You can either do it through a paid service like Legacy Locker, who, for $30/year will manage your online afterlife, or you can do it yourself—by entrusting someone close to you with the logins and passwords to your various accounts. If you choose the latter, make sure you store this will with your other will and living trust (You people with kids have a living trust, right?) and include in it information about all your online accounts: your website, your blog, your photo archive, your online backup service, Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, etc. Also include instructions on how you want each account dealt with. Deleted? Made inactive? Or would you prefer that your friend/spouse/child/parent use your page to notify friends about your death and funeral arrangements? Or maintain a tribute page? Whatever you do, tell him/her to STOP THE BIRTHDAY NOTIFICATIONS.

You probably don’t think you’re going to die anytime soon, but neither did Chris. He died suddenly of a heart attack. So don’t delay. Draw up a plan for managing your online afterlife NOW. This article on explains what companies like Facebook and Google require to access a deceased loved one’s accounts, and here is
a list of online services to help you manage your online life after death.

What about you? Do you have a plan for your online afterlife? Do you plan to make one? Do you know people who have died who still have websites and blogs and Facebook pages intact?

30 comments to How to Manage Your Online Afterlife

  • mainecharacter

    I don't have a web presence, but last summer, during a health scare, I wrote a letter to my online friends, and the addresses to send it to, just in case. You know, to say thanks.

    I once heard of a novel and looked up the author and read through many entries in their blog before I saw the In Memoriam tab and found out she'd died months before. I was glad for the chance to have met her through her blog, and glad her family kept it up, though it made her loss all the greater.

    You gave some great tips here, and sorry about your friend.

    • meghancward

      mainecharacter, It makes me sad to read blogs/Facebook pages by people who have died. I read about their "goals" and feel sad that they are no longer around to achieve them, etc. But I guess for close friends it's nice to have something online to remember them by.

  • Kristan

    I don't have a plan in mind, but I do know I need to set one up. Mostly for my blog, twitter, Facebook, and e-mail. That's about all I do anyway. I don't mind them being left up for people to see later, but I do think I would want them “closed” to future updates. (By the way, a high school friend of mine passed away last year, and Facebook does have some sort of tribute/memorial designation for those accounts. Her sisters got it done.)

    Then there are my computer files — in progress novels, stories, and most importantly my diary. I haven't yet decided what I would want done with those. The diary in particular concerns me, LOL. I hate to think that it's all for nothing, but there's some stuff in there that I wouldn't want my future husband or children to read. (Oddly, it would bother me less of a stranger read them. Although probably still I'd prefer that no one did.)

    I'm sorry about the loss of your friend. And the insensitivity of the people who said those things to you on Facebook. We should not feel guilty just because we're not BFF with everyone in our lives. I'm sure your friend would have understood.

    • meghancward


      I need to make mine, too. It makes me feel vulnerable to list all my passwords in one place, or worse yet, to give them to someone now. I love the idea of Legacy Locker, but have no interest in paying $30/year for it. If it were a onetime fee of $30, I'd do it.

      As for Facebook, good to know they have a memorial designation in place. I'm curious to know what it looks like. Diaries are an interesting dilemma – like e-mails. My diaries are all from many years ago, so I don't care if anyone reads those, but I'm not sure I'd want every email I've written to be available to friends/family.

      • Kristan

        Ditto feeling vulnerable about giving someone all my passwords right now.

        The FB "memorial" pages don't look any different (currently) than a regular page, they just have "Memorial Page" appended to the person's name. (If you search that term in your FB bar, I'm sure a few people will turn up and you can see.)

        • meghancward

          I just looked for some memorial pages. I found ones created after the person was dead specifically as a memorial (and they were business pages, not personal profiles), but I didn't find one that was already live when the person was life. Anyway, I get the idea. Thanks!

  • I wrote about this last year, and I should probably do another post on it. It's really important to ask a web-savvy friend or relative to be your social media executor, especially if you have a blog. Facebook does have a mechanism in place for reporting the death of a member. (I think you can find it in the "help" menu–or at least you could a year ago.) Sometimes spouses or other family members are not Web savvy–which was probably the case with your friend Chris, and they don't think of this as part of their duties. That's why it's up to us to make sure our cyber-legacy is protected by somebody who knows what they're doing. If you don't have any friends capable of it, perhaps it's worth it to pay Legacy Locker, but most people probably have friends who can delete your Twitter and FB account and post an "in Memoriam" on your blog. What people usually do is allow comments for about a month, then disable comments and allow the blog to stay up as a memorial. If not, blogs of dead people can hang in cyberspace for years, attracting spam. Not any nicer than FB "happy birthday" announcements. It's not fun to think about, but it's smart for everybody in social media to make sure they have a designated cyber-executor.

    • meghancward

      Anne – I remember your post! I don't think it mentioned services like Legacy Locker, but I do remember it. And good to know that FB has a mechanism for reporting the death of a member. I'm curious as to how they handle it. And good point to assign someone web savvy to handle accounts. Fortunately, my husband is a computer programmer!

  • sierragodfrey

    I remember Anne's post on this last year and I agree you've got to make sure someone's your web executor. I spoke to my husband about where to get my passwords. I don't know if he would have the presence of mind to access my online profiles, but my online presence is very important to me, and I let him know that this part of my life would be important to me for him to access and notify. If he doesn't, I guess I hope someone else who knew would comment on my status.

    I saw the comments on your Facebook page about Chris and I privately thought it was crappy and ballsy for someone to say so bluntly that the bigger problem was that you didn't know he had died. Very poor choice of words on their part, or else they lacked empathy and compassion in the extreme.
    And I thought it wasn't accurate. As you said, you weren't close—and friendships that begin online or are maintained online adhere to different rules.

    • meghancward

      Sierra – I think because your husband knows how important your online presence is, he will take care of it. If not, I'll have a chat with him. And you can do likewise if I go before you 🙂

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