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.
Due to recent technological advancements, one’s digital presence has become an important part of every day life. As a result, it is increasingly important to consider how this may impact traditional estate planning. With increasing frequency, individuals are creating complex lives online, which may include a social media presence, electronic banking, reward point balances, online investments, and many other possibilities.
Many people also now store digital assets that can have strong sentimental value, such as family photos or favourite playlists, online. As the types of assets that we store in digital formats continues to expand, important issues, such as how they will be accessed post-death, should be a consideration during estate planning involving our more traditional assets.
It is important to note that the issue of digital assets and estate planning does not concern only the younger generation. The conveniences and increased accessibility of technology have also attracted a large portion of the older population, including many who may already have estate plans in place. As it is always recommended that an estate plan be periodically revisited, especially when there are any significant life changes, the organization and implementation of digital assets should also be considered at these junctures.
Unfortunately, it is all too common to see these types of assets overlooked in a will. First and foremost, it is essential for advisers to be asking the right questions about the nature of a testator’s assets. This may require probing beyond the consideration of traditional assets, such as real property and bank accounts. In many cases, a digital asset may have no monetary value and it may be overlooked for this exact reason. Asking pointed questions regarding digital assets and having the testator prepare a list of information he or she stores online can help determine how these assets should be distributed or managed.
Another important aspect to address is how digital assets will be accessed after death. Digital assets and accounts are typically accessed by way of a username and password. If the executors of an estate are not provided with this information, they may encounter difficulties when trying to determine what these assets encompass and in obtaining access in order to effectively administer them.
The rules surrounding executor access to online accounts following the death of an account holder vary significantly. It is prudent to provide your executors with a list of online accounts and the corresponding access information rather than risk future inaccessibility as a result of different access requirements. Many sites are based outside of Canada, which means that the executor may encounter conflict of laws issues in the event that the executor’s authority is not recognized in the relevant jurisdiction. This can result in unexpected costs and delays in the administration of the estate.
In order to address this, it is highly recommended that testators give careful consideration to providing a detailed list of any virtual accounts and to an appropriate method of storage for the username and passwords, to be used after death. There are multiple ways in which this can be accomplished. For instance, it could be in as simple a format as a list that is given to your executors prior to death or attached as a memorandum to the will itself. It is not recommended that the password list form part of the will itself, as it may be made public if the will is probated. However, it is important to bear in mind that this list should be updated periodically. Passwords are sometimes changed (voluntarily or mandatorily) and accounts may be added or deleted. A static list that is created at one point in time will not necessarily be an accurate reflection of the virtual accounts and access information at the time of death.
Another storage method is to make use of online password storage services. There are multiple sites that have been established to provide this service. They are designed to store usernames and passwords to all virtual accounts in a safe and secure format which can be accessed by one master password. In this way, the list can be updated easily and an executor only needs to be provided with one password in order to access all of the necessary information.
As for social media, special concerns may arise with respect to personal preferences surrounding how these accounts should be dealt with post-death. Some may prefer to have these accounts shut down altogether, whereas others opt to have them memorialized in such a way that friends and family have a place to share memories of the deceased. Given these different approaches, it can be useful to provide some direction to your executors regarding your specific preference on the issue. Leaving a social media account open without any planning may seem harmless, but can inadvertently cause unnecessary pain to loved ones. For instance, if the account is not memorialized or deleted, photos of the loved one may appear in Facebook’s “Year in Review” and friends and family will continue to receive annual reminders and prompts to wish the deceased a happy birthday.
In 2016 and beyond, it is impossible to ignore the fact that technology has changed the way we live. Our lives are increasingly intertwined with the virtual world and, accordingly, plans should be made so that assets and information stored digitally are appropriately dealt with at death.
When my grandmother passed away this year, I was devastated. She may have been in her late 80s, but her sunny personality and boundless energy made it seem like she’d would probably just live forever.
My grandma was what you’d call a “silver surfer.” From the moment she inherited her daughter’s old laptop, she embraced the internet like a digital native. It wasn’t long before we were helping her set up a Facebook profile which she used to happily spend hours sharing cute animals videos and writing us sweet messages ALWAYS WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPS. I gave up explaining to her that this amounted to constant shouting. She liked it that way.
A few months after she’d passed away, I was a bit shocked to see her picture pop up in my notifications, reminding me that it was her birthday. I hadn’t forgotten, but it saddened me to imagine other family members whose grief was still very raw receiving similar messages. I had thought—perhaps naively—that since Facebook knew enough about my life and habits to bombard me with targeted advertisements it would also know my grandmother was no longer with us. But the bots didn’t have a clue.
I looked up the procedure to report a death to Facebook, and requested that her account be “memorialized.” This means that nobody can log in to the account again, but her posts remain visible to the people they were originally shared with, and friends and family can continue to share memories on her timeline. I wanted to digitally preserve the memory of my grandmother.
After making my request I almost immediately received a response from someone in Facebook’s community operations team asking me to send them her death certificate. Their response struck me as strange and insensitive—like I was making it up for some reason. Since I didn’t have that document (my grandmother lived in Brazil and I didn’t handle the funeral arrangements), I argued that they should be able to verify her passing through the evidence available on their own platform. Facebook eventually agreed, but I can’t say it was a particularly pleasant process.
Technology is currently challenging our conceptualization of what it means to live—and die.“The tech industry is not really up on death,” says Stacey Pitsillides, a design lecturer at the University of Greenwich who is a PhD candidate in the field of data contextualization in digital death. Since starting her research several years ago, Pitsillides says she’s witnessed a remarkable shift: People are becoming increasingly eager to immortalize personal experiences online, just as I had felt after my grandmother’s passing.
This observation prompted her to set up Love After Death, a panel showcased at FutureFest in London to help people explore how technology is becoming integrated into new forms of creative expressions around death and dying. I met Pitsillides at FutureFest, a festival of ideas sponsored by innovation charity NESTA, to discuss the concept of digital legacies.
Technology is currently challenging our conceptualization of what it means to live—and die. Pitsillides believes that technology and design will play an increasingly important role in the process of morning, which she calls “creative bereavement.” “By creating a bespoke legacy agreement, it merges the concept of a design agency with funeral director,” she said.
To illustrate this, Pitsillides started by taking me through a questionnaire that asked me things ranging from the practical (which loved ones should be informed of my death, and would I like to setup a database of music, art, or poetry to be used at my funeral?) to the weird and outlandish (would my friends like to do an online vigil through live webcasting where I could be present via hologram, and how about having a memorial implant or tattoo?)
But wait—holograms? Memorial implants? Was this for real?
In the future, yes.
Death by Design
“You could have a surface-level or below-skin digital tattoo that could be matched to that of a loved one,” Pitsillides explained. Using simple technologies, you could add content to these digital mementos throughout your life and then have them activated after your death. This activation could either be triggered by the executor of your will—over 19 US states have already put forward laws to recognize the deceased’s digital legacy as part of their estate—or we could evolve AI systems to recognize cues when this should happen. At that point, certain content could become available to the people you’d predetermined, depending on the stipulations you left in your digital will.
It’s basically the futuristic, high-tech version of wearing half of your lover’s heart-shaped locket. These tattoos and implants could even be programmed to trigger only in the context of certain events. For example, when walking past the special spot where a now-passed husband proposed to his wife, his widow’s digital tattoo could change color or bloom into the pattern of her favorite flower, and “their” song could start playing on her phone. Or a father could still “be there” to deliver the speech at his daughter’s wedding via hologram, or greet the arrival of his first grandchild with a pre-recorded message.
An increasingly popular service is using 3D printing to create personalized mementos for your friends and family using human ashes.While these memorialization usages are still conceptual, the technology itself is already fairly mature. For example, we already have technology that allows for smart epidermal electronics to collect and record information about users, reacting to this data in a wide variety of programmable ways: Think of IoT devices like Dexcom that continuously monitor glucose levels for diabetes patients, allowing them to track their blood sugar via apps linked to wearables like the Apple Watch. Instead of being focused on what our minds and bodies are doing in the present moment, these tactile technologies could help us build and enhance connections with people both during life and after death.
As more people embrace the idea that death in the digital age is not just about looking back at the past, they will begin to realize that it’s just as much about the future. We’re already seeing people grapple with this concept in terms of what happens to our bodies after we die. Nowadays your ashes can be turned into building blocks for a coral reef or a beautiful fireworks display, but there’s a whole other after-world emerging courtesy of technology. For example, an increasingly popular service is using 3D printing to create personalized mementos for your friends and family using human ashes.
The Talking Dead
Since such a large percentage of our lives and interactions are now conducted online, we are constantly forced to reassess our meaning of self and identity. Is our online identity the most accurate reflection of our true selves? And, if so, can it “live” independently from our physical bodies?
The answer is potentially yes. The connections we build and share can—now quite literally—take on a life of their own. For example, websites like LifeNaut offer services that allow you to create a “mind file” that supposedly enables future scenarios around reanimation through “downloading” your memories to a robot or clone vessel of some sort. We might not yet be at the stage where robotics and AI enable the Black Mirror scenario where life-like replicants of loved ones can be created from their social media profiles. But it’s no exaggeration to say that, for better or for worse, our digital footprint already outlives our biological self.
“We are moving toward a society where the dead are not banished but remain present in our lives as sources of guidance, role models, and as an embodiment of particular values and life lessons,” Pitsillides said.
But is that what we really want? The ability to live forever through technology raises difficult questions such as whether it is our memories that make us who we are, whether our loved ones would accept this “new” version of us, and who should control consent to make these kinds of decisions after death. This kind of permanence may be appealing for some, but for others the possibility of a digital presence continuously and independently evolving is quite disturbing.
Most of us avoid thinking about our own mortality until it stares us in the face. As someone who spends most of my time online, I’m unsettled by this idea of not being in control of my online persona once I die—even if I wouldn’t be in a position to care, at that point. But having experienced the enduring joy that my grandmother’s Facebook memories have brought to our family, it makes me think that my digital legacy is something worth preserving. And now I have the first steps to know how to do just that.
In what could be an important legislative victory for online poker players in France, the French Senate passed three amendments to the “Digital Republic” Bill. Of particular note is one of the amendments which permits the Autorité de régulation des jeux en ligne (ARJEL), France’s online gaming regulatory body and sponsor of the amendments, to enter into agreements with other European nations to share player liquidity. To this point, France has been ring-fenced from the rest of the world, with French online poker players only able to play against other people in France.
A (roughly) translated version of the amendment gives a brief look at why such a change was needed. “….the steady decline of the gross proceeds of the online poker games can be explained by the fact that the French regulated market…is abandoned by some players who turn to illegal operators including poker tables, field global Action, are more attractive: in fact, over a table or a poker tournament players, the greater the reward, the higher the site is attractive.”
In other words, the ring-fencing of the French poker market has created a player pool that is artificially smaller than those at other sites that are open to the rest of the world. ARJEL has determined that French poker players have been willing to forgo French licensed sites and take their chances with “illegal” operators outside of the country who offer larger player pools and, in turn, more table options and greater prize pools.
There are certainly French sites that are of decent size and give players a solid gaming experience, but with only players from within France’s borders from which to pull, they will never be as large as some of their competitors. According to PokerScout.com, the largest French-only internet poker room is Winamax.fr with a seven-day average of 1,050 cash game players. That ranks as the sixth-largest online poker site in the world, nearly in a four-way tie with the iPoker Network (1,100 players), PokerStars.it (1,100), and partpoker (1,050).
PokerStars.fr has 900 cash game players, partypoker.fr has 400, and iPoker.fr has 260.
So that is the “why” of the amendment. Here is the “what” (again, Googly translated):
….the online gaming regulatory authority may allow an operator holds a license under Article 21 to offer starting players a verified account on a site subject accreditation to participate in circle games as defined in the first paragraph with the players holding an account on a site subject to approval by a member State of the European Union or State party to the agreement on the European economic Area.
“Circle games” are poker games, specifically Hold’em and Omaha, the only two poker games that have been approved by ARJEL.
One important detail here is that the shared liquidity can only be with sites “subject to approval” by an EU or EEA member country. Read that to mean “regulated” by such a country. The EU is composed of 28 nations, while the EEA includes the countries in the EU plus Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein. This is potentially notable because of one country that is not included in either of those groups: the Isle of Man.
The Isle of Man Gambling Supervision Commission (GSC) licenses a number of online gaming sites, but the one that stands out is PokerStars.com. The way the amendment reads, it seems like French players, even those on PokerStars.fr, would not be able to sit at the same tables as players on PokerStars.com, since PokerStars.com is not licensed in an EU or EEA country. French players could sit with players on PokerStars.eu, PokerStars.uk, PokerStars.es, and PokerStars.it, but not PokerStars.com.
That would, of course, limit the ceiling on shared liquidity, but that’s not the only potential problem. Players on PokerStars.eu, PokerStars.uk, or any other PokerStars site that is not French, Spanish, or Italian play with people on PokerStars.com. Thus, some technological solution would need to be figured out to allow French players to play with others in Europe while weeding out non-EU, non-EEA players on the dot com site.
Similar situations might exist with other rooms and networks, but PokerStars is clearly the most significant.
The bill being amended, the Digital Republic Bill, is actually quite unique. Adopted by the French National Assembly on January 26, 2016, it establishes rules, regulations, and individual rights for the digital/internet environment. The bill was not simply created by a bunch of out-of-touch lawmakers, either. Instead, the public given a seat at the virtual table in an open process in which citizens could suggest additions and amendments. When completed, the bill covered issues such as:
1. Net neutrality – all content providers must receive equal access to speed and bandwidth by ISPs; ISPs cannot charge more for preferred access.
2. Data portability – e-mail providers must allow users to migrate e-mails and contacts from one provider to another
3. Right to maintain a connection – those who can’t pay for internet service can receive financial assistance
4. Confidentiality of private correspondence – e-mails are private, just like postal mail
5. Minors’ right to be forgotten – it is possible for a person to have internet evidence of themselves, such as an embarrassing photo, scrubbed from the internet if that data was posted when they were a minor.
6. Online review verification – online review sites must ensure their reviews are genuine
7. Public data – any information that is supposed to be available to the public must be maintained and easy to access
8. Improved accessibility – public administration websites must meet regulations to make them accessible to users with physical limitations
9. Digital death – people will have a way to make sure their digital presence is handled in accordance with their wishes after they die.
This week I came across this article by Brandon Ambrosino that provides a look at the human aspects of how we will interact with the digital data left by loved ones who have died. He discusses how he visited his Aunt’s Facebook page after her passing in a way to offer some comfort by reminiscing with the memories she left behind. He provides a stat that by 2012 there were 30 million Facebook users with accounts that were dead. He goes on to ask an important question that many of us need to consider.
How is our continuing presence in digital space changing the way we die? And what does it mean for those who would mourn us after we are gone?
This question requires us to give some thought to determine how we want to be remembered. Then we need to prepare for how we want to accomplish that. He goes on to explain how Facebook provides us with digital autobiographies that can be viewed by loved ones after we pass that will provide a detailed picture of who we were. He also touches on some new services coming online that can present a virtual version of who we are in the form of digital avatars and may provided changes to how we grieve.
At some point in time, there will be more dead Facebook users than living ones. Facebook is a growing and unstoppable digital graveyard.
It’s a great article that discusses an area that few seems to get little editorial coverage and is becoming more important as we continue to provide rich histories of our lives online. Facebook and other online services aside, we are creating so much personal data in the form of photos, videos, and other important documents and we need to have a plan for protecting and passing it on.
To learn more about how you can take steps to ensure that you’re protecting your digital data and plans for passing it on be sure to read the digital legacy section of this site which continues to be updated with resources.