Rest in Peace: Planning for Your Demise, Digitally

Rest in Peace: Planning for Your Demise, Digitally

Wharton emeritus finance professor Jack Guttentag is not a particularly morbid person, but he has given considerable thought to what he wants to happen to his personal and professional digital effects after his demise. Guttentag, 90, runs The Mortgage Professor, an online business that provides advice on home loan-related issues.

“I don’t have any intention of dying soon — I have a five-year business plan — but I need to approach this chore as if I have very little time left,” he says. “It isn’t easy.”

Upon his death, Guttentag has written instructions to his wife to put his website up for sale in consultation with his two partners and attorney. Over the years, he has had offers for it, but Guttentag says he never had the inclination to give it up or work for someone else. (He expects the value, which includes several trademarks and URLs connected to the business, to grow over time.)

On his desk, Guttentag has a manila folder containing a sheaf of papers that list user IDs, PIN numbers and passwords for various online services. He has also digitized almost all the photos he has taken over the years; they are in a file on his computer and also on Dropbox, the cloud storage provider. He has not, however, digitized family pictures inherited from other family members. “My son did some of them in developing a slideshow for my 90th birthday party, but most of them are still in boxes in my office, stoking my guilt,” Guttentag notes.

At a time when most people are spending more and more hours online – and, in the process, creating a legacy of data that will outlive them — the inevitability of death poses new challenges. Not only are there consumers who, like Guttentag, wish to tidy up their virtual effects before they die; there are also estate lawyers in the early process of establishing what constitutes digital ownership, technology firms clamoring to offer new services that deal with the remnants of digital life, and social media companies coming up with platforms that memorialize the dead.

“The norms are evolving,” says Andrea Matwyshyn, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton. “There will be a feedback loop over the next few years: Customer savvy and sophistication will increase, companies will begin to streamline their approaches and the legal industry will formalize estate planning.”

Death in the Digital Age

According to a report from digital research firm eMarketer, American adults spent more than five hours each day on the Internet last year, up from four hours and 31 minutes in 2012, and three hours and 50 minutes in 2011. Social media sites occupy a large portion of that online time: Data from research firm Ipsos Open Thinking Exchange shows that Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 who use social networks say they spend an average of 3.2 hours per day doing so. Nearly three-quarters of online American adults use social networking sites, and some 42% of online adults now use multiple social networking sites, says Pew Research Center.

“Customer savvy and sophistication will increase, companies will begin to streamline their approaches and the legal industry will formalize estate planning.”

“We have become progressively more reliant on digital communication and social media,” notes Matwyshyn. “To many people, their digital persona is equally — and in some cases, more — important [than their physical] identity.”

And yet very few people have made arrangements for what will happen to their digital persona and online possessions when they die. In 2012, the federal government added a “social media will” to its list of personal finance recommendations. The government suggests appointing an online executor to be responsible for the closure of email addresses, blogs and other online accounts. This person would also carry out the deceased’s wishes with regard to social media profiles, whether his or her desire is to completely cancel all profiles or keep them up as a memorial for friends and family to visit.

Most technology and social media companies have policies around what happens to users’ online content when they die. After all, our digital effects — the pictures we post, the emails we draft and the status updates we send — don’t solely belong to us in the first place. They belong, at least in part, to companies like Twitter and Yahoo that store the information on their servers.

“Companies are in a delicate position,” says Matwyshyn. “On one hand, there are resource constraints because they are dealing with a large number of unique requests, which is expensive and time-consuming. On the other hand, treating families of a deceased user with the sensitivity that the loss of a loved one requires is the ethical and correct thing to do. There is also a business opportunity here to build goodwill with the community of the deceased.”

Last year, for instance, Google launched an inactive account manager feature that lets users decide the fate of their accounts when they die. Twitter, meanwhile, will deactivate an account upon the request of an estate executor or an immediate family member once a copy of a death certificate is provided. Facebook either removes the account upon request by an executor or allows profiles to be turned into memorials so that friends may still post comments, photos and links to the deceased’s profile.

Flickr, which is owned by Yahoo, operates under its parent company’s terms of service agreement, which stipulates that the user ID and contents within an account terminate upon a person’s death. YouTube, which is owned by Google, operates under Google’s policy. Instagram, meanwhile, says on its site: “In the event of death of an Instagram User, please contact us.”

Users might, for example, post a remembrance on their deceased uncle’s page on his birthday. Or “visit” a friend on the anniversary of his or her death. “In the past, we gathered around the gravesite, but today we have new ways to communicate on social media,” says David Bell, professor of marketing at Wharton.

“[Mourning practices] vary person to person and culture to culture,” Bell notes. “But we will see new customs develop in terms of decorum and decency as well as an emergence of different platforms and tools for people to pay their respects. Families will be able to keep these things going in perpetuity.”

But online memorials are delicate entities. Who has custody of the profile? Who gets access? Who has the right to decide what’s appropriate to include, and what is involved in those decisions? Jed Brubaker, a PhD candidate in informatics at the University of California, Irvine who studies digital identity, social media and human centered computing, is immersed in questions of digital heirlooms. “In talking about things like Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other quasi-public social media that are accessible to lots of people, there’s an unresolved question of ownership,” he notes. “Is our virtual ‘stuff’ always [considered] ‘property’?”

“Communication that historically has been ephemeral is now persistent. It sticks around — there’s a record, a data trail.”

If it’s not property, though, then what exactly is it? “It’s communication,” he says. “We’re talking about content on a Facebook wall or a Twitter feed. Communication that historically has been ephemeral is now persistent. It sticks around — there’s a record, a data trail.”

Monetizing Digital Heirlooms

The vast majority of our digital assets — such as digital photos or Facebook timelines — have little value beyond the sentimental. But even these require careful estate planning, according to Gerry W. Beyer, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law. In the old days, he says, people passed down scrapbooks, memoirs, picture albums and musty files of old newspaper clippings. “But now, many of us don’t have physical property like that to transfer. So all that stuff will disappear.”

Of course, there are lots of ways to transform those digital assets into physical objects. You could download your e-mail messages and back up your computer files on a disk, for instance, or you could put them on a CD or flash drive. You could even print them to remove them from the digital realm. But how many people actually do this? Case in point: Whenever Beyer presents at a conference, he asks the audience: “How many of you have photographs that are valuable to you that you haven’t printed?” Nearly everyone in the room raises his or her hand, he says. “If you don’t plan for these, your loved ones may lose access…. If you care what happens to your digital belongings after you die — your photographs, your home movies, your e-mails — you have to plan.”

And certain digital assets have monetary value both today and in the future, such as domain names or a blog that generates income. Avatars or virtual property in online games such as World of Warcraft or Second Life also have quantifiable value, Beyer notes.

Digital assets — personal iTunes music libraries and Kindle books, for example — are in a different class, however. If you have, say, a large digital book collection, the transfer of usage rights is limited and closely monitored. “You don’t technically own those,” says Beyer. “You have a license to use them. That license dies with you. But if those are owned in a trust, your beneficiaries may be able to continue to use them.”

Frequent flyer miles or hotel points, while also part of your digital profile, present some tricky questions, too. These assets are governed by a contract with the company, according to Wharton’s Matwyshyn. Most contracts specify that the miles and points are personal and cannot be shared unless given explicit permission from the company. “It is possible that airlines and hotels would be willing to entertain a request to transfer, but they have a unilateral right to say: ‘I’m sorry for your loss but these points are no longer valid,’” she notes.

“If you care what happens to your digital belongings after you die — your photographs, your home movies, your e-mails — you have to plan.”

A growing number of companies are finding ways to monetize post-mortem digital effects. After all, just because most of our digital content is sentimental, it does not mean it is of no economic value. “Quite the opposite, actually,” says Pinar Yildirim, a professor of marketing at Wharton. “Say you upload photos today, and 100 years later, long after you are gone, your great-great grandson wants to have them. It represents an opportunity for any company that may want to justify its investment in storing that digital content.”

Some companies, including E-Z Safe, Estate++ and SecureSafe, act as repositories for your digital accounts. They serve as virtual safe deposit boxes, holding onto your usernames and passwords. When you die, that information gets forwarded to the person or people you specify.

“After a loved one dies, oftentimes a family member or friend needs to get access to their digital material — their social media, their e-mails or they just want to pay some bills from an online account,” says Texas Tech’s Beyer, who is a national expert in estate and trust issues. “But without planning, companies may take weeks, months or even years before they grant access.”

Other companies assist in efforts to locate digital assets of the deceased. Webcease, for instance, helps people find keepsake photographs on sites like Snapfish or Shutterfly; accumulated earned miles or points on travel, hotel or airline loyalty programs; personal interactions on social and professional sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and personal accounts on sites like Amazon, PayPal, Netflix or eBay. “They are essentially search firms that will search all over the Internet to find what’s out there,” Beyer notes.

Other businesses in this market specialize in helping family members gain access to the computers and accounts of people who have died, according to John Sileo, a Denver-based expert on identity theft and privacy. “Say your spouse or parent passed away and you need to get into his or her account, but the company won’t let you because you weren’t listed on the account, or you didn’t have power of attorney. One of your options is to enlist the help of a so-called ’ethical hacker,’” who could infiltrate accounts you have a legitimate right to, says Sileo. “There are people who are making a lot of money doing this behind the scenes.”

But these are precisely the scenarios that Guttentag, the nonagenarian Mortgage Professor, hopes to avoid. This is why he is doing his best to organize his digital effects now. “I don’t want to leave a mess for my wife and children to clean up when I die,” he says. “If that were to happen tomorrow, that pledge would not be fully realized because of the still unfinished business I haven’t yet gotten around to. But 2014 is the year.”

Who will get your iTunes when you die?

A shift in legacies

The so called GenY has been growing in a different age than their parents. The digital realm has taken over some aspects in everyday life, and that’s something we will have to live with.

We previously  had photo albums, scrapbooks, handwritten journals and letters, pieces of ribbon and shoeboxes to rule them all. If you wanted to get back in time, you just had to open these shoeboxes, carefully hidden in the basement or stored in the closet behind a pile of blankets.

Today, we do have dvd of photos, social media accounts, Facebook statuses and emails ; even the diplomas you are getting from your online courses are PDFs, not pieces of paper framed and proudly displayed behind your desk.  Cyberspace is getting a hold on these precious memories. And that may be an issue in terms of memories and privacy.

Most of our online accounts are locked behind passwords, and without proper guidance, memories may arise once again when you would have liked them to disappear, or those precious memories, photos or videos that you had with a love one may be deleted from cyberspace. That’s why you should take action right now, read more on the howtos, and prepare a list of your legacy, with proper instructions and beneficiaries !

Digital Legacy Association urges hospices to support patients in managing their digital estate

The Future of Our Digital Selves

By Jess Myra


This paper presents insights on designing interactions for digital immortality after bodily dying, and will deal with factors of interactions with the digital archive for those who stay alive.

Current instruments for digital memento and digital archive administration will not be supposed to perform for submit-life communications and don’t sufficiently take into account the longevity of content material, digital legacies, and relevancy of content material over time.

Conclusions and insights from graduate thesis analysis are offered right here to tell applicable interactions for digital immortality. It will embrace how cultural legacies of the previous can encourage digital legacies for the long run. Also, correlations will be included from a survey addressing mementos, digital legacies, digital will planning, digital archives, and the dying of family members.


Results offered listed here are primarily based on interviews and a web-based survey. This survey had a complete of one hundred fifteen respondents and integrated qualitative and quantitative questions. Input strategies had been through radial button choice, a number of checkbox choice, and free textual content entry. Questions coated normal demographics and 6 subsections (conventional mementos, digital mementos, digital will, your legacy, these gone, digital archives) totaling 31 questions with the choice for suggestions on the finish.

Participants had been unfold throughout 22 international locations, with most respondents from North America (60%) and Europe (24%). Gender division was males (sixty one%) and females (39%). The majority of respondents had been working professionals (seventy five%), with lesser respondents as numerous sorts of college students (18%), with nominal respondents both a keep-at-dwelling dad or mum or as “different”.


Dusty picture albums and containers of letters (conventional mementos) are being changed with laborious drives and cloud storage (digital mementos). Instead of fading pictures and ink, we now have the endurance of digital bytes. As we transition to this new kind of digital content material administration, traces of ourselves begin to manifest that will retain life far after we die.

In human historical past, there has at all times been a want to go away a legacy and be remembered. This occurs at varied scales whether or not as a civilization, tradition, household, or particular person—suppose pyramids to gravestones. In trendy instances, our channels of communication have shifted from conventional to digital memento administration.

This compulsion to seize our lives for posthumous remembrance is named thanatography. This paper explores interplay alternatives for a way our digital legacies may be eternal and retain relevance to these dwelling lengthy after our loss of life. This a brand new strategy to human-pc interplay analysis in submit-life digital humanities referred to as thanatosensitivity.

Cultural Legacies

An essential half of analysis for this thesis examined cultural legacies which have survived all through the generations. Studies included: on-website visits, interviews with anthropologists, audio guided excursions, commentary, and reflections leading to matter upsetting questions.

The purpose of this portion of analysis was to find how present behaviors and historic societies can encourage the legacy of digital content material for the next generations of technocrats. The following cultural legacies had been examined:

Native American Totem Poles, Vodou Spiritual Communications, and Icelandic Sagas.

Traditional Mementos

Traditional mementos are sometimes simply significant to the person who owns them and so they doubtless don’t even keep in mind the final time they dealt with them. Comparatively, many individuals need to be remembered lengthy after their dying so the paradigm of coveting private objects as a technique to retain a legacy to go on to others is just not very efficient. The which means and worth of conventional mementos can simply be misplaced to the following sequence of receivers.

Digital Mementos

We are amassing gigabytes of photographs, movies, and emails and we wrestle to parse significant content material at related instances from the collections. Web companies like Flickr, or software program purposes like iPhoto add some readability with organizational strategies like date stamping or tagging. Facebook’s implementation of the Timeline additionally helps us to reßect on shared moments primarily based on years of our lives. Yet, why is a date, key phrase tag, or yr related after we die? Does this meta knowledge add worth to our digital legacy when individuals need to entry it later?

The Archive

The digital archive is a set of all digital content material that the particular person owned together with the digital pictures, video, audio, emails, tweets, and textual content messages from that one particular person. However, the traces between digital archives aren’t so distinct. Typically, digital media is shared with others. Our milestone moments and recollections have worth as a result of we expertise them with folks. Consider the shared mementos between a household, or tight community of mates. The digital archive of somebody who has died in that context is considered much less as ‘theirs’ and extra as ‘ours’.



We settle for a broader possession of digital content material as we tag our pals, they usually tag us, and we every share the identical content material independently by way of totally different shops. With so many channels obtainable to entry and share digital content material, and a lot of our time now being devoted within the digital realm, there’s a bigger viewers accessible that’s unparalleled by our conventional mementos. There is larger alternative to replicate our digital selves ahead to be remembered by future generations and extra importantly, to offer worth for them by way of our digital archives for an extended interval of time.

Everlasting Presence

As traces of our digital selves persist after we die, there’s alternative leverage digital media so our lives can proceed to be significant for our family members. We can retain relationships with folks we care about and make our life experiences out there for his or her profit. In essence, we will persist digitally to some extent after bodily demise.

Current platforms that exist haven’t been constructed for the performance of put up-life content material administration. Facebook’s Memorial pages are static archives in an energetic public platform that don’t handle the sensitivities of particular relationships. The Timeline group of content material is sensible for our personal self-reflection in life, nevertheless, as a digital archive it doesn’t present direct worth for others.

Remembering the Dead

One of the largest challenges with digital immortality is retaining relevancy of our digital content material over time so our lives might be precious and significant to future generations. In the interval instantly after loss of life, household and pals mourn and undergo the grieving course of. After acceptance of the dying, the particular person is remembered by these surviving by way of recollections and mementos. If the particular person was recognized first hand in life, triggers reminiscent of a spot, date, or scent can recall shared moments. However, what occurs generations after the demise of somebody and people people who knew them in life additionally cross away? How can somebody who has been lifeless for a very long time retain a legacy in digital content material that will have which means to future generations.

Activating Archives

Now we have now the chance to leverage qualities of digital content material to help differing types of relationships into the long run. With the copious quantities of knowledge being collected and shared about our private lives, there’s alternative to remain linked in new methods after dying. Algorithms primarily based on persona and character traits can auto-put up on somebody’s behalf—as seen within the new on-line service LivesOn that will tweet for you past the grave. Similarly, providers like Dead Social and IfIDie permit customers to ship preplanned messages in social media after demise.

Intersections of Life

However, not represented within the present suite of publish-life digital companies are the advantages of shared life experiences and commonalities throughout digital archives after dying. Namely, the second of overlap between somebody’s life and a digital second from somebody who’s lifeless might be beneficial in numerous contexts.

These corresponding life experiences will be accessible from the archive of people who have died to supply a brand new foundation for empathy all through life phases of the dwelling that the deceased can contribute to. This offers a chance to find new views on folks you thought you already knew, or new commonalities with a relative you by no means knew in life. Commonalities and shared experiences are timeless. They retain worth in new methods to totally different individuals, for various causes, at totally different moments.

Because now we have varied levels of relationships with individuals, we frequently wish to share and bear in mind folks in numerous methods primarily based on how we knew them. Also, the sort and quantity of info we will wish to share will depend upon how shut we’re to them. Thus, utilizing public platforms to serve the aim of many levels of relationships will not be applicable. It doesn’t fulfill the specificity of private relationships, and imposes moments within the public sphere that will possible not be anticipated and doubtlessly not desired as nicely.


With new retailers for connecting to a bigger viewers, and with traces of ourselves which can be left behind in digital media, it’s extra essential than ever to think about features of possession, longevity, and relevancy over time of our legacy after dying. Different from previous traditions, the long run of digital content material administration permits us to preplan and increase our digital archive to stay linked with family members and people in our social community lengthy after we’re bodily gone.

Through my analysis, I consider present present platforms don’t leverage digital media adequately for submit-life legacy in an lively contextual manner, nor does it assist the wants of these near us as a platform for communication and reminiscence in our bodily absence. I consider the traces between particular person digital archives are blurred and there may be alternative for our life to retain relevance far after we die by leveraging the worth of commonalities throughout our digital archives. Through shared recollections and availability of empathetic experiences, our lives can have that means over time through the wealthy digital content material that aggregates all through our lives.

There is a brand new alternative introduced to us that didn’t exist earlier than with conventional mementos. Fortunately, we’re in management and will get to determine what it means to command our put up-life digital selves—ought to we select to.