Grieving relatives have reportedly asked undertakers to swipe their dead loved ones fingerprints on their digital devices in an effort to access their pictures, memories and social media accounts.
But the practice is often futile, with experts saying even if an undertaker agrees to carry it out, it only works if the body is still “slightly warm”, according to UK Law Society wills and equity chairman Ian Bond.
The message is to rest in peace — but leave your passwords handy, Mr Bond told The Times.
He said lawyers dealing with wills and probate had seen some clients go to the macabre lengths of securing a dead person’s thumbprint in an effort to retrieve photos and messages from devices like iPhones and iPads.
Mr Bond said he had heard of cases where family members were placing the hands of recently deceased persons who were “slightly warm” on mobile phones to unlock them.
“Although this sounds a bit sinister it is done with the best intentions,” he said.
It’s a problem increasingly encountered in a digital age where people conduct their lives and their business online and camera phones have replaced photo albums for storing cherished memories, says Law Society NSW president Doug Humphreys.
So much so that last week, NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman asked the NSW Law Reform Commission to investigate whether new laws were needed to clear up who can access data after death.
“Not many of us think about what happens to our digital assets once we’ve gone or once we can’t make decisions anymore,” Mr Speakman said.
“The last thing that bereaved families want are bureaucratic hurdles and legal uncertainty.
“The Law Reform Commission will look at whether our laws are clear and fair enough to make sure people have some certainty over what will happen to their digital assets when they die.”
LEGAL AND LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE
While he’s unaware of specific incidents in Australia of undertakers being asked for access to the fingerprints of the dead, Mr Humphreys is well aware of the legal and logistical nightmare surviving relatives encounter if their loved one said.
“I haven’t heard directly of undertakers being asked to scan a thumbprint. The thing is, it might sound far-fetched, but I can understand why people might do it. Because people have their lives on their phones. Their pictures, their memories are all there. And unravelling that life once they are gone can mean dealing with international companies, international laws, making the whole process so much harder.”
Increasingly, digital wills are being drawn up by lawyers to include passwords and access codes.
Apple has strict privacy terms whereby unless a person knows the user’s password, they cannot open the device. Facebook doesn’t usually let anyone take over the account of someone who has died unless a user has nominated a “legacy contact”.
What’s needed, is to ensure private emails, social media accounts and digital music libraries are treated just like the concrete items like house and heirlooms are treated, Mr Humphreys said.
“As a lawyer — and this is advice I would have given five or ten years ago but is probably even more important now — ‘bucket file’,” he said.
“Where the questions used to be ‘where’s your will? Where are the spare keys to the house? What bank accounts do you have and where do you have them? Where are the insurance policies? What shares do your own?’ and all that sort of stuff; now you need to add your passwords, passcodes and keys to your social media and cloud accounts to the bucket,” he said.
“The logical place to put all of that stuff is probably with whoever is keeping your will. But just make sure someone knows where it is, and it’s safe, but accessible.”
Mr Humphreys said people are often reeling with sudden death, or grim diagnoses so the conversation should be had long before anyone becomes unwell.
“Like anything, this is all about actually being organised and regrettably a lot of us are not,” he said.
“We have to think about making life easier when we are gone — because one thing is certain — none of us are getting out alive,
The Law Reform Commission will report back to the Government with its recommendations, with the review process expected to take between 12 and 18 months.
Most adults should have a legal will that provides instructions on what should happen to your assets in the event of your death. A will is not just for old people – anyone can suffer an illness or be involved in an accident that leads to their death. And while wills were principally focussed with physical goods, many of us hold valuable digital assets that might become inaccessible when you die. What happens to those?
#1 User names and passwords
In a sense, these are the easy ones. Most of us probably have more user accounts on different services than we can count. But there are some key ones – things like online banking, share trading accounts and cryptocurrency wallets.
My suggestion is to write the account details down (like, on actual paper!) and seal them in an envelope that sits in another envelope that has a foreboding “Only to be opened in the event of my death” message on the front.
Then, stash that letter in a secure location such as a solicitor’s office or some other stronghold. Or give it to a trusted party like the executor of your will.
#2 Multi-factor authentication
You should be using two-factor or multi-factor authentication on every service that offers it. You’ll need to look at how each authentication service works but many have an option for having the second factor accessible from more than one place. For example, if you use Google Authenticator you could set it up on a second device.
#3 Digital assets
This is where it can get tricky. If you’re like me, you’ll have accumulated lots of music, movies and TV shows in the days before streaming services became mainstream. Unless you have physical copies of those assets, then accessing them from cloud services can become tricky.
When you buy a song or movie from a digital service, you aren’t actually buying a copy of the asset. In the majority of cases, you’re buying the right to access the content and that right is not transferable.
I’ve got a bunch of apps, movies and music that I’ve purchased through Google Play and the Apple iTunes and App Stores. The majority of that is from Apple so I;ve set up Family Sharing so my wife and kids can get access to the content I’ve purchased. So, even if I suddenly depart this existence, they can still watch my movies and listen to my tunes.
So, while the rights aren’t transferable, it may be possible for access to your digital assets to continue. But don’t forget the user accounts associated with that content as it might be needed if the content is protected with DRM.
#4 Powers of attorney
While not strictly about your digital life, providing someone you trust with financial and medical powers of attorney is pretty important. These are legal documents that allow someone to make decisions on your behalf.
For example, when my parents were ageing, financial and medical powers of attorney were distributed between me and my siblings so we could make decisions on our parents’ behalf should they become unable.
Those documents can assist with getting banks and other bodies to provide access to accounts that might otherwise be locked down.
#5 Social media
Access to social media accounts might seem trivial but it can be important. One of the hardest things to do when someone dies is notify all the affected people promptly. When death is expected, families often create a communications plan so that family and friends are informed in a timely and respectful way.
Different social networks can do this. For example, Facebook allows you to define a “legacy contact” in your personal settings. This is someone who can manage your account in case of your death or if you’re incapacitated. Choose someone you can trust and let them know they have this responsibility.
Some personal experience
My father was a very organised person.
Before he died, he prepared a folder on his computer that he told us all about. In it were copies of important documents and a point-form bio with key dates and places and other information that made the logistics of planning his funeral far less stressful.
While that was a really hard time, having that information ready was a great blessing to us. While you might not care what happens after you die, there will be people grieving and being a little organised can help them at that time.
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.
The path Canadians must take to inform their governments about a death in the family is getting a digital overhaul to avoid delays that can — and have — lead to wrongful or missed benefit payments.
Federal, provincial and territorial governments turned to private consultants two years ago to offer a blueprint for a system where everything is handled electronically and family members don’t need to contact multiple government departments in an effort that can seem repetitive and unnecessary.
An 85-page consultants’ report from October 2016 called for the end of “multiple layers of administration” in provinces and territories, inconsistent sharing of information between jurisdictions, and paper-based processes that result in forms that aren’t legible or are incomplete.
The lack of electronic collection and sharing of information is “the greatest constraint” facing governments that need timely registration and notification of a death, the report said.
“If a jurisdiction intends to advance upon the proposed blueprint, it must first undertake an aggressive plan to transition to digital modes of information collection and dissemination, thereby replacing all manual processes and paper forms with digital processes.”
The consultants also called on governments to make more information easily available for citizens because many don’t know what they need to do when a loved one dies.
A briefing note to the chief operating officer at Service Canada a few months after the consultants’ report landed noted the “great disparity” in the “available resource capacity” in provinces and territories to meet the digital nirvana envisioned.
Officials said some provinces and territories would reach the finish line sooner than others, partly due to resources, partly due to unique issues facing different jurisdictions.
In Ontario, for instance, municipalities play a role in the process, steps which the consultants noted “do not necessarily add value.”
In the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the consultants said there were challenges validating the identity of a deceased because it is common for people to use aliases and have different addresses for different situations.
As well, the spelling of surnames can vary within Inuit communities and families because some Inuit citizens didn’t agree with how their names were originally registered with the government, the consultants wrote.
The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the briefing note and a final draft of the consultants’ report under the Access to Information Act.
Yves Berthiaume, president of the Funeral Services Association of Canada, said a uniform, nationwide notification system would make life easier for families and funeral directors who often act as a key point of contact between the family and governments.
Provinces and territories are responsible for collecting the information about a person’s death and they pass on details to Service Canada, which notifies federal benefits programs to stop payments to the deceased and start payments to surviving partners.
Hiccups in the process can lead — and have led — to mistakes in benefits payments, followed by uncomfortable collection calls from Service Canada officials that the federal government would rather avoid happening in the first place.
“If we don’t receive the information in a timely manner, then it results in difficult situations for Canadians,” said Anik Dupont, director general with Service Canada.
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?