I opened up my Facebook page this morning and, as I do every day, I saw the list of people whose birthday it is — including my college friend Alonzo. The thing is, Alonzo died last fall. It would be an understatement to say my jaw dropped when I saw his name and face. For a moment, I actually thought he was still alive. This just seems too creepy to me. What would you do?
— Name withheld
I can certainly see why you find it “creepy,” if only because of the surprise element. At the same time, I know that many find it comforting to be able to revisit a deceased friend or family member’s Facebook page, especially on birthdays and death anniversaries. Think about it this way: It’s often not possible to visit the cemetery to remember a loved one (you may have moved away; it could be the dead of winter), and many people choose not to be buried.
Today our personal home pages can become the place to share memories, leave virtual gifts like candles and flowers, and feel connected to others no matter where you live. One blogger wrote: “For a month, I was there on his page every day. It just sort of kept us all connected.”
Considering how lively Facebook can be, it may be surprising to learn that it has actually become the largest site of virtual memorials. Of more than 1 billion member profiles worldwide, 30 million have outlived their owners.
When you consider how rituals reflect the times, however, I suppose it’s not all that surprising. Explained one hospice worker in the UK.: “Twenty years ago, no one put flowers on a roadside following an accident, but this is usual practice now. The way we accept people’s grief is changing. We are more tolerant of accepting expressions of emotions like flowers or books of condolences.” And Facebook sites.
That being said, there are ways to prevent a deceased’s birthday from appearing from beyond the grave. The best option is for each of us – now — to make plans for our “digital assets,” much as we would for our financial ones. Create a list of all your online accounts and passwords so that your next of kin (or “digital executor”) can act on your behalf after your death.
For those who didn’t plan ahead, Facebook gives survivors two options: To “memorialize” a loved one’s account, which will restrict the page to current friends, making sure those friends don’t get reminders to wish the deceased a happy birthday and exclude the memorialized page from the “Friends You May Know” suggestions for others. Friends can still make posts in remembrance. The other option is to have the account and page deleted.
But changing rituals take time to be adopted and so, I fear, we’ll all be subject to more “creepy” surprises in the meantime.