From live-streaming funerals to online memorial pages and even chat-bots that use people’s social media footprints’ to act as online ghosts, the digital afterlife industry (DAI) has become big business.
Our internet activity, commonly referred to as digital remains, lives on long after we die. In recent years, as firms such as Facebook and experimental start-ups have sought to monetize this content by allowing people to socialise with the dead online, the boundaries around acceptable afterlife activity and grief exploitation, have become increasingly blurry.
To date, there has been little effort to build frameworks that ensure ethical usage of digital remains for commercial purposes. However, new research from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) suggests that the guidelines used to manage human remains in archaeological exhibitions could be used as a framework to regulate the growing industry and make the commercial use of digital remains more ethical.
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, was conducted by Professor Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab, and Carl Öhman, a postdoctoral researcher at OII, advises that online remains should be viewed in the same way as the physical human body, and treated with care and respect rather than manipulated for commercial gain.
The paper suggests that regulation is the best way to achieve this and highlights the frameworks used to regulate commercial use of organic human remains as a good model to build on.
A document of particular interest is the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Professional Ethics. The text cautions that human remains must be handled in accordance with their inviolable ‘human dignity’. Central to this concept is the fact that it applies regardless of whether the patient is aware or not – to individuals and groups alike. A factor that has proven key to the process of repatriating remains from marginalised and previously colonised groups, such as the First Nations.
The code states explicitly that human dignity requires that digital remains be seen as the informational corpses of the deceased and regarded as having inherent value. They therefore must not be used solely for commercial gains such as profit.
Carl Öhman commented: ‘Much like digital remains, archaeological and medical exhibit objects such as bones and organic body parts, are both displayed for the living to consume and difficult to allocate to a specific owner. As exhibits have become increasingly digitalised and made available online, the ethical concerns of the field appear to be increasingly merging with those of the digital afterlife industry.
‘The fact that these frameworks have proved effective is heartening and suggests that they could also be used in the same way for the DAI.’
Adopting a similar regulatory approach for the DAI would clarify the relationship between deceased individuals and the firms holding or displaying their data.
In recommending a framework for regulation the paper identifies four Digital Afterlife industries; information management services, posthumous messaging services, online memorial services and re-creation services – which use a person’s digital footprint to generate new messages replicating the online behaviour of the deceased.
While this service has yet to be adopted by mainstream technology giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, the paper finds that the services provide the highest level of online presence post-mortem. It is therefore both at risk of exploiting the grief of the loved ones of the deceased and the greatest threat to an individual’s afterlife privacy.
Professor Luciana Floridi, said: ‘Human remains are not meant to be consumed by the morbidly curious. Regardless of whether they are the sole legal owner of the deceased’s data – and irrespective of whether the opinion of their next of kin, with regulation, DAI firms would have to abide by certain conventions, such as, preventing hate speech and the commercial exploitation of memorialised profiles’.
Under these regulations, firms would be required to at the very least guarantee that consumers are informed on how their data may be used or displayed in the event of their death.
Professor Floridi added: ‘In developing a constructive ethical approach for the use of digital remains the first step is to decide to what extent, and under what circumstances, our memory of the deceased is driven and shaped by the commercial interests of the industry. The second and equally important step will be to develop a regulatory framework, commonly adopted, to ensure dignity for those who are remediated and remembered online.’
More information: Carl Öhman et al. An ethical framework for the digital afterlife industry, Nature Human Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0335-2
Michele Flanigan doesn’t sound like a necromancer on the phone. She laughs easily, and many of her sentences rise in pitch like open-ended questions—quirks I would not have expected in a confessed raiser of the dead.
Before she took her current job as office manager at Lakeview Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where her grandmother and mother also worked, Flanigan did a stint in New Haven at Grove Street Cemetery, Yale’s silent neighbor. When she started, the burial records were “a mess,” she told me. She immediately began to organize the records with Microsoft Excel for quicker reference.
“I have to [organize the records], because otherwise I may never find what I’m looking for,” she said. “I’m an organizational freak, so that was definitely my first priority.”
What started out as a managerial project soon morphed into an attempt to digitize death. Over the next two years, the Grove Street staff uploaded the records Flanigan digitized to a searchable database on the cemetery’s website. Flanigan was struck by how many families called the office asking for their loved ones’ records to be added to the database. Thousands of the burials on the site—8,023 of the more than 14,000 listed—occurred before 1990, when the Internet began to go mainstream. For many of them, other than their archived obituaries, these online burial records are the only digital evidence of their existence.
When Flanigan set out to reorganize her workspace, she inadvertently resurrected more than 8,000 people in cyberspace. But Flanigan’s project is not unique, nor is it the most ambitious: a quick Google search for “digital death” reveals countless websites and services that aim to protect our online legacies after we pass on. From creating simple memorial websites to designing complex social networks, arranging for an afterlife in the cloud could soon become a normal part of preparing for death, not unlike finalizing a will or selecting a casket.
Five years ago, Mandy Benoualid and her father paid a visit to a large cemetery near downtown Montreal. Benoualid’s grandmother was interred in the cemetery’s columbarium, a stone structure that holds funeral urns. When she passed away, the urn containing her ashes had been placed in one of the many compartments lining the columbarium’s wall. Benoualid was paying her respects to her beloved grandmother when a glimmer caught her eye.
A CD cased in plastic rested in front of an urn with a man’s name inscribed on it. The front of the case said, “Dad’s work.”
Presuming “Dad” to be a writer or a musician, Benoualid googled the name on the urn but could not find any information about his life. He had no digital presence. She was frustrated by the elusiveness of his identity.
“Everybody in a cemetery has some type of history, some type of story to tell,” Benoualid told me. “There’s that date of birth and that date of death and that dash in between, and there’s so much life story within that dash.”
Shortly after that cemetery visit, she set out to help people define their dashes.
In 2013, Benoualid founded Qeepr, a website whose mission is “to ensure a loved one’s legacy lives on(line) forever.” A deceased person’s relatives can use Qeepr to design a custom online memorial page complete with photos, life milestones, and a family tree. Qeepr is one member of a larger suite of websites working to answer the same question: what should happen to our digital presence when we die?
Qeepr’s answer is simple: digital death, like digital life, should be social.
As our financial and social lives go digital, it’s becoming more important to think about how loved ones can access accounts in the event that the original user can’t.
According to experts, the first step is taking inventory. Then set a time to review regularly.
Experts recommend tax time as a good time to arrange an annual inventory check. People often have more accounts than they realize.
Once you have all of your accounts in one place, make a road map. A road map would be a list of all accounts, usernames, and passwords. However, they do suggest withholding sensitive information from a person’s will.
“If you’re writing in the will, indicate that a road map exists and where to find it. But don’t put passwords [or] usernames in a will. That’s a public document,” said Rachel Sheedy, Kiplinger.
Some internet companies, including Google and Facebook, already have built-in features to control data after death.
Cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin can be lost for good if a person doesn’t leave instructions on how to access the private key.
Experts suggested using a hardware wallet to secure Bitcoin and to keep that with your road map document in a safe deposit box.
Companies like Everplans and TrustedHeir specialize in digital estate planning. A password manager can also make things easier, by storing logins and passwords all in one place.
Many states have passed a uniform law that greatly increases individuals’ ability to control what happens to their digital assets after they die.
There has been a trend in recent years, both in literature and in life, for Scandinavian concepts that are encapsulated in a single word. Hygge, for example – which is Danish for cosiness, contentment or well-being – dominated the publishing industry in 2016.
Now, the new buzzword on the block is “dostadning” – a hybrid of the Swedish words “death” and “cleaning”. How much these fad words are actually a part of Scandinavian culture is debatable, but dostadning is the new phenomenon outlined in Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. In Europe, the book has already occupied a good deal of reviewing space and according to Time magazine, dostadning will be the hot new trend stateside in 2018.
Magnusson’s book chimes with the current anxiety about clutter in the 21st century. Dostadning advocates the proactive and mindful clearing out of possessions before death. The idea is that it saves relatives the onerous task of making decisions about what to keep and what to throw or give away. The book reflects the simple fact that we are all living longer lives. This results, of course, in more stuff.
But it also means we have more time to get rid of things. We can start planning for our death by slimming down what we leave behind – shedding unnecessary objects in favour of what we actually need. It is the antithesis, perhaps, of the ancient Egyptian tradition of being buried with things that might accompany us into the afterlife.
Magnusson’s top tips for dostadning focus mostly on material possessions – though she suggests keeping a book of passwords for family so they can access online data more easily. But this is no straightforward task, given that more and more of our data – photos, letters, memories – as well as actual things – music and books – exist in digital rather than analogue form. And as more of our lives are logged and lodged virtually, chances are our relatives might not be able to access it.
A documentary about this precise issue aired recently on BBC Radio 4. My Digital Legacy was part of the We Need to Talk about Death series and featured terminally ill patients with an extensive digital footprint who rely on the internet – especially on social media – to connect to the world around them. The programme also heard from bereaved relatives who experienced difficulties in accessing data, including Facebook profiles, of loved ones after their death.
The death manager
My recent short story How To Curate a Life, published by Storgy Books in the anthology Exit Earth, deals with precisely this issue. Set in the not too distant future, the parents of a young woman killed suddenly in an accident try to commission Jesse – a “digital death manager” – not to curate her life but to erase it: to gain access to her files then destroy them.
In this fictional world where everyone is required to dictate the terms of their digital estate, it is illegal for Jesse to tamper with the girl’s online content. And yet, the financial reward would mean freedom from his desk bound job forever.
The story grew from an idea I found online about careers that will be ubiquitous in the future. Digital death management, it seems, is definitely set to become “A Thing”. And just as we now commission solicitors or will writers to oversee our material estate – there will come a time when people will also hire someone to clean up their digital footprint
In our already busy lives, does tending to our online existence give us one more thing to do? Perhaps so. But it’s about taking responsibility for our own stuff. If we don’t make the decisions about what to keep or discard – whether actual or online – then ultimately others will need to. And if we don’t leave clear directions about where to find our digital content, it makes things tougher for everyone.
As Magnusson writes, death cleaning is “a permanent form of organisation that makes everyday life run smoothly”. What better legacy to leave behind than to ease the bereavement process for the ones we love?
“When you experience those feelings and memories, it’s a little bit like losing someone all over again.”
This October, when NaKina Talbert glanced out the window of her temporary home in Guatemala and saw a volcano erupting less than 100 miles away, her first instinct was to snap a photo. “It’s pretty far away, but it booms like a cannon!” she tagged the image, with an arrow pointing to the volcano.
Talbert, a 58-year-old painter and former project manager from Dallas, Texas, then logged into her account on SafeBeyond, a digital legacy platform. Here she uploaded the image to her “vault,” a cache of photos, videos, audio messages, and letters she plans to have sent in installments to various family members after her death. There is the message for when her granddaughter (now 14) turns 21, the video for the first Christmas Talbert’s son (now 37) will spend without her, letters to her future great grandchildren (should there be any), and a slew of recordings from the bucket-list trips she has taken over the last year.
Talbert’s visit to Guatemala is her seventh such trip, though she doesn’t know how many more she will be able to make. According to her doctors, she wasn’t even supposed to live this long.
In 2014, Talbert was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, a rare and fast-acting neurodegenerative disease with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. She soon began making preparations. She knew she wanted to leave her children and grandchildren recordings of her voice—when Talbert’s father died nearly 40 years ago, that was the thing she forgot first. “I can still see his face as clearly as if it were yesterday,” she told me. “But I can’t quite grasp his voice anymore.”
She found SafeBeyond about a year after being diagnosed. It’s one of a growing number of services, including DeadSocial and GoneNotGone, that allow people to posthumously send video, audio, and text-based messages to their loved ones at planned times. Users of these services could presumably schedule annual birthday videos to be sent to family members from beyond the grave, or write notes, as Talbert has, to be dispatched to future descendants they will never meet.
Most of these services require payment through a subscription plan or a one-time storage purchase. DeadSocial, one of the more prominent digital legacy companies, currently boasts over 12,000 users, according to its founder. It is unclear, however, exactly how many people have signed up across the industry.
Talbert, for her part, is also leveraging SafeBeyond to help plan her funeral, for which she has many requirements. One is that her whole family wear tie-dye, she explained, because she loves the idea that someone will drive by, see a bunch of people crying, and “think they all just got fired from Joe’s Crab Shack.” Her main hope, though, is that SafeBeyond will help her family through their grief once she’s passed away. She has messages planned to be sent throughout their initial year of mourning, including one her son will receive on his first day without her. To Talbert, these messages are a way to reach out and support her kin from the afterlife.
But if we can now regularly receive direct digital messages from deceased loved ones, how is that changing the way we mourn their passing?
Image: NaKina Talbert
It’s a newer wrinkle in a much older question—how is technology shaping our relationship with death?—and an emerging field of scholars have already devoted themselves to studying it. Preliminary research suggests consistent posthumous communication in fact can have a positive influence on recipients coming to terms with loss.
Debra Bassett, a doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick who researches the impacts of death in the digital world, believes that posthumous messages can help their recipients return to a place of grief when they need it most. In general, “most people that I have researched are finding these things a comfort,” Bassett said.
Still, the answer might vary depending on circumstance. In “Shadows of the Dead: Social Media and Our Changing Relationship with the Departed,” a study Bassett published earlier this year, she interviewed individuals who have revisited digital communications from deceased loved ones. She found that while re-reading emails or text messages has indeed helped many people grieve, listening to audio recordings is more complicated. A number of participants, according to the study, felt that “they need to already be having a ‘bad day’ to listen to voice recordings, and that this is done only occasionally and after much consideration.”
And for many people, no matter the mode of communication, receiving a posthumous messages might feel like an ambush.
Lori Earl, whose daughter Esther died of cancer at the age of 16, was shocked when she received an email from Esther around three months after her death. Earl was at a meeting when she received a text from her husband: Do not open your emails until after your meeting, it read. She soon understood why.
A few years earlier, it turned out, Esther had written a note addressed to her older self. “Future me,” it began, “I hope you’re doing better than present me.” Her parents hadn’t known about the letter, which had been sent via the service FutureMe, until it unexpectedly hit their inbox.
it’s current Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts. B)
Soon after, a tweet appeared on Esther’s timeline: “it’s current [sic] Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts. B).” The tweet went live in February 2011, over six months after Esther died. No one is sure what service was used to post the message.
At first, her mother was jarred. Reading communications from her late daughter reignited her grief. “When you experience those feelings and memories, it’s a little bit like losing someone all over again,” Earl said.
The tweet still evokes raw feelings. But eventually the Earls came to hold Esther’s posthumous letter as a source of comfort. Reading it felt like conversing with their daughter, something they dearly missed. Even now, Earl said she finds herself going back to it. “We do read from it often, because it’s such an insight into who [Esther] was and what she hoped,” she said.
Earl, who has since memorialized Esther’s life in the bestselling book This Star Won’t Go Out, compares confronting posthumous digital messages to wiggling a loose tooth: It hurts every time, “and yet you can’t leave it alone.” Feeling pain, to her, is better than feeling nothing. And “while a letter may be painful,” Earl added, “it will always in some way be healing.”
“It’ll be the last new thing from him, which will be so, so hard. But at least I get a new thing, so many years after the fact.”
Peter Barrett, founder of GoneNotGone, says he wants to avoid posthumous communications catching recipients by surprise. Message recipients have to consent to see messages left for them through the service, Barrett noted. They receive an email that provides a GoneNotGone login, and can disable the service at any time if it makes them uncomfortable.
Barrett genuinely believes that companies like his will help people come to terms with loss. “If you know you are going to hear from someone again and again on your birthday, it becomes something to look forward to,” he said. “The person remains in your life despite not having a physical presence.”
Emma Rose, a 19-year-old college sophomore, would agree. When she was 12, Rose’s uncle died after a three-year battle with brain cancer. Today, she remembers him as a Cookie Monster tattoo connoisseur, a fan of Say Yes to the Dress who spoiled his nieces with vacations to Disney World.
An infant Rose and her uncle. Image: Emma Rose
Prior to his passing, Rose said, he wrote physical letters to be sent to her and her sister at various stages in their lives—one immediately following his death, another at his memorial service a month later, and a third to be opened on her and her sister’s respective wedding days. Rose has yet to read the third.
“With cancer, there’s always an element of mourning where you feel as if something’s been stolen from you,” she told me. “I’m not sure a single holiday or birthday has gone by where I haven’t had a moment of, ‘He should be here.’ Knowing that on my wedding day I won’t have to feel like that,” she added, “that a part of him will actually be there, is amazing.”
In fact, Rose draws so much comfort from the specter of this final letter from her uncle that it actually makes her nervous. “It’ll be the last new thing from him, which will be so, so hard,” she said. “But at least I get a new thing, so many years after the fact. Not a lot of people do.”
In the end, it seems, her uncle got his wish. Rose thinks his great fear was that she and her sister would forget him, since they were young when he died. He didn’t want to slip out of their lives; his analog letters were an effort to remain close to them. “In a way it’s kinda like he cheated death,” Rose said. “Like, ‘lol cancer you thought you were gonna prevent me from talking to my nieces on their wedding days? NICE TRY!’”
Her uncle might not have used an online legacy platform to schedule his messages—instead, Rose’s aunt is delivering his letters. But Rose’s experience is nonetheless analogous to that which might soon be shared by loved ones of those who turned to the likes of GoneNotGone, DeadSocial, and SafeBeyond to effectively curate their digital afterlives.
As for Talbert, she hopes to achieve what Rose’s uncle has. She wants her potential great grandchildren to know that their “crazy great grandmother” once sat in a hammock and watched a volcano erupt from her window. “I think people are most interested in things like that,” she said. “Just cool stories.”