I’ve been writing a fair bit about death in the past few months—not to say I’m an expert, but I quite like the idea of qualifying myself as one. Have you ever wondered what should happen to your social media profiles after you die? Or even what the best […]
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.
Death is part of the human condition but how we manage it is always evolving. The authors of a new book chart rise of garden cemeteries, undertakers and crematoriums
What can a study of death tell us about society? While death is one of the constants of life it is as susceptible to trends as any other part of life. It is tempting to say that we have sanitised death in twenty-first century Ireland and that with a decline in practices such as wakes, removals and wearing mourning clothes, the process of bereavement is shorter and our engagement with death briefer.
As the vast majority of people now die in hospitals we have less engagement with the bodies of our loved ones and the responsibility of preparing them for death falls to professionals. This is perhaps why we turn to digital memorials to mourn our loss and create a public display of bereavement. Recent research into attitudes to death, burial practices and memorials in Dublin over five centuries shows that change is not a twenty-first century phenomenon.
Fear of dying and the pain of bereavement come to all of us, as much today as in the past. They enable us to share an emotion experienced by our ancestors, and indeed by most humans who ever lived. But do we really feel the same as they did about death? Do we behave in the same way or are our responses shaped by the context of our own times? The changing social, political, medical and technological circumstances in Dublin since 1500 have produced an intriguing range of responses to death, burial and remembering.
The historical context and individual circumstances of death are equally important. Poorer Dubliners buried in the city’s crowded graveyards in the seventeenth century did not expect their families to mark the grave with a stone, while their social superiors were interred indoors beneath engraved slabs which paved the church aisles. The practice of marking ordinary graves grew in the more prosperous eighteenth century and became a social expectation among the middle class a century later. Today, the indignity of leaving a grave unmarked could bring shame on a family. So strong is this desire to mark a final resting place that, following a cremation, a “gravestone” or memorial plaque is erected even though there is no grave.
The individual circumstances and broader context combined in 1918-19, when more than 2,500 Dubliners died during the Spanish flu outbreak. The city’s doctors and cemeteries struggled to keep up with certification and burial. Thousands of families felt the individual pain of bereavement brought about by global events. Two years earlier the bereaved families of executed rebels struggled to cope with shattering personal loss and national celebrity status – both equally unwanted.
Such notable deaths happened amid the constant daily stream of “ordinary” deaths, burials and remembering that are part of life. The management of such a regular event has evolved over time. Before the expansion of the suburbs mourners might follow the coffin on the short walk from the family home to the parish graveyard, where the sexton had arranged to open the grave. As medical science advanced, however, people trusted to hospitals in their final illness. So when the inevitable happened the family might face a problem of transporting the remains some distance to their parish churchyard for burial.
When Dublin spilled beyond the canals from the 1840s this logistical issue became more common and a commercial solution emerged in the form of funeral undertakers. The establishment of garden cemeteries at Glasnevin (1832), Mount Jerome (1836) and Deansgrange (1865) meant that most funerals required transport. Some elite funerals in the previous century had used upholsterers acting as “undertakers” to build elaborate settings for sombre, draped catafalques, but now the general public demanded more practical arrangements. Firms such as Fanagans, Corrigans, Nichols and others offered a range of services from basic transportation of the remains to supplying the coffin, mourning coach and flowers.
The Nichols family operated livery stables around Lombard Street, hiring horses and carriages to the city’s merchants, day-trippers and visitors. The company’s archives show the gradual evolution into funeral undertaking; in 1857 they first advertised this aspect of their services, in 1865 Nichols were listed as undertakers in a Dublin trades directory and in 1890 they opened a coffin-making factory. Repeat business across generations of Dublin families, and good business practice, ensured that careful records were required and – importantly for historians – were preserved. Such seemingly specific commercial archives can tell us a great deal about life, death and business in Dublin since the nineteenth century.
Dublin’s reliance on horse-drawn transport is evident from these records, demonstrating that not only were livery stables a basic necessity but reminding us that the work of farriers, saddle-makers, coachbuilders and other specialist trades kept hundreds of families fed, not to mention the feed suppliers, bloodstock dealers and the scavengers who kept the streets clear of horse manure.
The arrival of the motor car and the telephone were as important to undertakers as to other businesses. To see their early use itemised in account books shows how precious these technologies were and the progressive attitudes at work. Changes in mourners’ requirements and expectations also appear in these ledgers. Where the earlier entries might record a hearse and pine or oak coffin, the typical list lengthens as we move into the twentieth century. A mourning car (or perhaps two) for the family, flowers ordered by those unable to attend the funeral, an organist to play in the church, death notices in local and national newspapers and memorial cards with a photograph all became part of the standard funeral.
The opening of the city’s first crematorium at Glasnevin in 1982 brought further changes to the funeral service and to the undertaker’s business, urns and plaques replaced coffins and headstones. With a fourth crematorium opening by the end of 2016 it is not surprising to learn that less half of all funerals in the city end at an open grave.
New technologies and changing social behaviour have altered the presence, or manifestations, of death in other ways. Questions arise over social media profiles when a person dies; detailed help-pages tell you how to adjust your profile settings on Facebook in preparation for your absence, other websites give tips on using a Facebook profile as a memorial wall. To prevent your loved one from continuing to appear on Tinder is straightforward if you know their password, but what about email accounts, websites, domain names and online storage accounts you may own?
A “digital estate” plan is recommended, in which you set out your wishes for your online assets after death. But perhaps the change brought by new media is not so great. The ease with which people have taken to the RIP.ie site shows that the power (and appeal) of the death notice in the paper, or the announcement in church, function just as well online.
We may have had enough centenary events to last a lifetime, but this year reminds us that death and bereavement still take centre stage in Irish life. Not only have we used the centenary to reflect on the lives of the 1916 leaders, but we have used it as an opportunity to review and reflect on our progress as a nation. These anniversaries can remind us not just what we have lost, but how much we have changed.
Grave Matters: Death and dying in Dublin, 1500 to the present by Lisa Marie Griffith and Ciarán Wallace is published by Four Courts Press, at €24.95
Nearly one-third of the world’s population has a Facebook profile. That’s 2.2 billion users. What will happen to all those profiles after people die? What will happen to yours?
Tech Insider spoke with Dr. Mark Taubert, a UK expert in grief, social media, and end-of-life planning. He says people need to consider what will happen to their social media accounts after they’ve passed.
“Not only do you have to think about your physical possessions, but you also have to take all the digital bits into account,” he said via email. “Who can access your account, emails, photo albums, music files, who gets the passwords, what happens to all your images and videos?”
Enter: DeadSocial, an online service that helps people prepare the “digital legacy” that will remain online after they’ve died. Dr. Taubert is on the app’s advisory board and is one of its most ardent supporters. How do you use a social media app after you’ve died? DeadSocial has a simple system:
Essentially, while still alive, you write and schedule messages that will be pushed to your social media accounts after your death.
While the service is free, Dead Social has distinct enrollment periods. During enrollment, they allow 10,000 users to subscribe to the service. The last enrollment period was in February and the next is coming “late 2016.” In the meantime, the site offers alerts for the next enrollment period.
When you’re granted access, you’ll create a profile on the site. It actually looks quite a bit like a Facebook page:
The first is to write your goodbye messages. It might be hard thinking of things to say from beyond the grave. But Dr. Taubert offered the example of, if you died of heart disease, you might schedule messages every six months reminding friends to get check-ups. You may leave specific messages for loved ones’ birthdays or for a spouse on your anniversary.
In addition to writing and scheduling posts, you’ll assign an executor who will “activate” the messages once they feel your loved ones are prepared to view them. It’s an important decision. The executors (you can assign up to six) are the ones who contact DeadSocial to tell them of your passing. While they can’t alter or view the messages before they release them, they are responsible for administrating them. DeadSocial itself never releases or views the messages themselves.
DeadSocial also encourages users to draft a social media will, which details your specific wishes for your online profiles and accounts after you die.
“What if one family member, after your death, insists that your Facebook profile is deleted, and another wants it to be memorialized into perpetuity?” Dr. Taubert asked. “If you haven’t expressed a prior opinion, then you won’t get a say. It has already caused huge legal rows and split families and friends.”
Given that streaming services like Twitch and YouTube can provide lucrative careers for content providers, who owns digital content after users’ deaths may become a seriously contentious issue in the future.
Outside of the digital legacy service, DeadSocial has a number of resources for the living and the recently bereaved: end-of-life guides for how to prepare Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts either for your death or what to do with a loved one’s after their passing. They offer advice on funeral arrangements and your end-of-life options. You can also leave a “goodbye video” for everyone.
It’s all exceedingly morbid, but Dr. Taubert points out that a carefully prepared social media presence will last generations and will be the way your descendants will connect to you in the future.
“Can you remember the full name of your great-grandmother?” Dr. Taubert asks. “Probably not. But in future, that sort of information will only be a few clicks or taps away, on a memorial page.”
Sure, DeadSocial is creepy. But it’s time we engage with the other use for our social media pages: a lasting image of us for the people we’ve left behind. For the first time in history, we’ll be able to take control of how we’re remembered.
A look at the phenomenon of digital memorials; repositories and time capsules of a life even after it’s ended in the real world
On the first death anniversary of his father-in-law last week, Pradip Mehta (36) decided to show the 120 relatives gathered at his home in Rajkot the digital memoriam he had created through Shradhanjali.com, India’s first and only memory portal. As he clicked on the page, the photograph of his father-in-law popped out to the accompaniment of the Mrityunjaya mantra. Curious relatives looked on as he showed them the photo album on the portal where all good moments with the deceased we’re captured for eternity. “There were two reasons why I chose this kind of memoriam,” he explains. “Instead of paying a fortune on print media for the announcement, this online profile will be up for 30-odd years. And by uploading all the pictures and videos, my wife and I are making sure that he will be ‘alive’ for our 12-year-old son in the future.” Mehta regrets that he grew up with practically no idea of his ancestors. “We don’t take efforts to know our lineage at all.”
That may not be the case with the millennial generation and the people who follow them. With an entire life online — selfies uploaded to Facebook, tweets, posts, Instagrams of their meals and dubsmashes — leaving behind a legacy is less a matter of choice and more a matter of inevitability. Everybody leaves behind a footprint on the Internet, but some of it can be controlled even after their death. Today, your loved ones have a ‘life’ beyond their death — on memorialised pages on Facebook, on webpages dedicated to their memory, and even on QR codes on their gravestones that will link to information about them online.
Indeed, the dead may soon outnumber the living, at least in the virtual space. A US statistician has calculated that Facebook’s dead will outnumber the living by 2098. And when that is the case, the rules must evolve.
Take the way social norms have evolved in the virtual space. When a death is announced on social media, online friends begin sharing thoughts and comments. Some may not have even met the deceased in the real world but their digital interactions had been extensive enough for them to suffer a sense of grief.
So, how does one mourn a loved one who has piled up an extensive amount of digital possessions? Do they deserve an online memorial? Facebook certainly thinks so. On the social networking website, families can get full access to profiles only if there’s documented instruction from the deceased. You can let the site know if a person has passed away, and Facebook will memorialise the account, which means that person’s Facebook account now appears with a ‘Remembering’ above their name. A legacy contact (someone you choose to look after your account if it’s memorialised) can then write posts, respond to new friend requests and such. There are many such accounts on the site — take the accounts (now memorialised pages) of actor Sanjit Bedi (of TV show Sanjeevani fame), Sheryl Sandberg’s late husband Dave Goldberg and late F1 driver Jules Bianchi. All this, if you don’t explicitly ask for your account to be deleted after your death.
In an earlier interview to The Huffington Post, Facebook spokesperson Fred Wolens had said: “When we receive a report that a person on Facebook is deceased, we put the account in a special memorialised state. Certain more sensitive information is removed, and privacy is restricted to friends only. The profile and wall are left up so that friends and loved ones can make posts in remembrance. If we’re contacted by a close family member with a request to remove the profile entirely, we will honor that request.”
Shradhanjali.com works a little differently. For Vivek Vyas, co-founder of Shradhanjali.com, the idea was born out of empathy rather than business opportunity. He says one particular incident prompted him to offer the memorial service online. He and his friend (now partner) Vimal Popat were eating samosas at a roadside restaurant off Rajkot in 2011. The paper in which the savouries were packed was the obituary page. “It was disturbing to see the photographs of the deceased wrapped around the samosas, oil-stained and later, discarded as rubbish.” The friends spoke of having an online memoriam which would be decorous to the memory of the departed.
Back home, the two researched similar sites and to their surprise, found no other site offering such a service in India. “Let’s do this,” Popat urged Vyas, and the two quit their jobs in an insurance company to start the memorial portal. The site went live in 2011, allowing you to relive memories of your loved ones.
First, one has to register by going online to this B2C website with a simple user interface. Once a payment of Rs 2,700 is made for a 30-year subscription, the subscriber can upload information, photographs and videos about their loved one. They are offered a choice of 10 languages (for friends and relatives to write their condolences) and a selection of music that they wish to be played whenever someone visits the profile page. The content is completely user-driven and once the page goes ‘live’ the link is sent to all the emails that have been uploaded.
Vyas maintains that their website is gaining traction — there are about 400 paid subscribers, many of them are agencies which partner with print media giving ‘packages’ to the client — and in spite of not marketing aggressively, the number is growing. “The concept connects with people in a rather intimate manner,” he says, “and some of the people to whom I have explained the site have shed copious tears, they are so moved by the concept of memoralising the departed.”
In fact, one of the subscribers initially wrote a cheque of Rs 27,000 insisting that the yeoman service needs better cash appreciation.
The founders maintain that their venture is not comparable with Facebook or a blog as Shradhanjali is free of any advertisements and even sends out reminders of birth and death anniversaries. “Besides, the others are not exclusive platforms for memorials,” Vyas stresses.
Clearly, the meaning of the memory of a loved one is different today. It exists beyond photo albums and physical memories of that person’s friends and family. Madhu Nataraj, choreographer and dancer, Natya Stem Dance Kampini, discusses what the community page dedicated to her late mother Maya Rao on Facebook means to her. Although the page was made when she was alive, as a way for her students to address her and to talk about her book, after her death in 2014, Nataraj says today it has become a sort of memorial page, where people post their remembrances of her mother.
“She lives on through her art. Every time I dance or step on stage — and I’m sure this is true even of her students — I remember her. This is just another dimension of that remembering,” Nataraj says. In another case, the FB page of Dean D’Souza (a close friend of a writer who did not wish to be named), who died in a helicopter crash in 2013, “brings comfort and a smile”. He adds, “Friends are constantly posting on it, and his profile picture is changed regularly, reminding us of a happier time. I found it unnerving at first have FB remind me that “It’s Dean’s birthday”, but not anymore over the years.”
Nataraj however emphasises that for an artist of her mother’s stature, the legacy is through the memory of her art. Of course it feels good when people pay tribute to her online. But a virtual ‘memorial’ of her mother’s life isn’t the only legacy she has.
But the burgeoning number of such services makes it clear that for many others, a virtual repository of their loved one’s life is important. Take The Digital Beyond, a site that discusses how to plan digital legacy management — Facebook accounts, email, bank accounts etc — after death.
There are others. In a page straight out of the movie PS I Love You, a service called My Wonderful Life sends posthumous emails to loved ones. Then there’s MyDeathSpace.com, which tracks social media profiles of the dead and maintains an extensive message board and Facebook page.
Services such as Living Headstones allow you to emboss a QR code upon a loved one’s headstone. Scanning it connects to a website containing information you and friends add about your loved one, such as: an obituary, family heritage and history, photos, comments by friends and relatives and even links to share content on Facebook or Twitter. Another, Quiring Monuments, adds a link to the granite memorial through which smartphones can connect to your loved one’s personalised website.
There are those who might raise their eyebrows at such platforms, but Vyas will have none of it. “Just because you have a mandir (a prayer room) at home, the need for temples will not diminish, will it? There is a decorum given to the memory of the dead on our site.”
Do we forget?
But there is also a flipside. In the real world there is a period of mourning, people come to offer condolences and then, it is time to move on. Cyberspace may not allow this clean transition from grief and mourning to a semblance of routine. The thing about having such a digital memoriam is that grieving does not really end. This is a setback, according to clinical psychologist Dr Anand A Rao. “Grief has to be suffered immediately otherwise it will become a reaction later which will require clinical help,” he says. But reliving the memory each time someone posts a query or shares a memory does not help either. “Ultimately, grief has to stop and loved one’s routines have to continue. Typically I would recommend the presence of such a page for about 15 days, no more,” he says.
There is also the matter of insincere tributes. As Nataraj says, she was very hurt when people who “hardly knew” her mother had posted selfies captioned: ‘Maya didi’, “followed by five hearts”. “I found that callous,” she says. “There are so many so-called obits and condolence messages and everybody wants to claim that familiarity with her that I’m sometimes wary.”
But it doesn’t look like the digital memorial phenomenon is going away anytime soon. Rohini Lakshane, researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society, agrees with Dr Rao to an extent, saying that getting constant updates could thwart the process of grieving or healing. “But at the same time, I could see how reaching out to a larger community via public updates or photos could give them strength, moral support and empathy,” she says. She points out that if a person feels that their online persona or presence is an extension of themselves, it’s a perfectly “legitimate wish” to have. “Given the importance attached to details of events that we post online, I suppose the desire to create a time capsule of it will continue to exist.”