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How to Manage Your Digital Afterlife


After their son’s suicide, one Wisconsin couple was desperate for answers. They tried to log into his e-mail and Facebook accounts but failed. The grieving parents finally got a court order to access these online records, arguing that just as their son’s death gave them ownership of his tangible assets, so it also gave them rights to his digital contributions.

In courtrooms around the country, the online legacies of the departed are becoming the subject of painful battles for mourning families. People have long made plans for delivery of their possessions after they die, including family heirlooms, photograph albums, old letters and other memorabilia. Many people design this disbursement to help those left behind deal with their demise. Our possessions are part of us and traditionally are the main tangible part that remains after our death.

In the modern world, however, another echo of us exists that will outlast our physical existence: our writings and records in the digital realm. Our digital “selves” are composites of mementos such as images on Shutterfly or Flickr, books on e-readers, and our musings and correspondence on e-mail, blogs and social-media accounts. This full array of data deposits, legal experts say, is your digital legacy.


The increasing importance of our online identities adds a new layer to grief and mourning. Growing evidence suggests a person’s contributions to the cloud can be dear to mourners and, because they are easily accessible, potentially lasting and interactive, can help them cope with the loss. Yet many of us have given little thought to what will happen to our online accounts after we die. “People don’t realize that they need to make plans for these assets,” says Georgetown University lawyer Naomi Cahn. “The first step is getting people to think about this.”

Sites of Solace

Many people want to maintain their online privacy. In addition, preserving the Facebook page of a dead person could be considered a touch macabre. Yet as with your old physical photos and letters, creations by you in the digital world can be a comfort to those you leave behind. For an article now in press, information scientist Jed Brubaker of the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues interviewed 16 Facebook users about their experiences after the loss of a friend or family member. They found that all the respondents were emotionally attached to the digital trappings of the deceased. “People tend to go back to these pages on anniversaries, birthdays and holidays” as a way to keep a part of their loved one alive, says cyber anthropologist Michaelanne Dye of the University of Georgia.

Mourners may even set up new online venues such as memorial Web sites or Facebook pages. These sites also can serve as effective emotional outlets. In her doctoral dissertation at Antioch University, psychologist Jordan C. Fearon asked 68 founders of Facebook memorial groups about their experiences with grieving through social media. All but one of the founders said they would recommend creating a Facebook group to anyone who had recently experienced a loss. Like holding a wake or sitting shivah, a virtual memorial provides the bereaved with social support, a sense of connection with both the deceased and the living, and meaningful activity. “It was very beneficial to my grieving process to physically see via my computer that my friends were feeling the exact same emotion,” wrote one of the individuals Fearon surveyed. In addition, nearly 60 percent of the respondents said that online grieving was more helpful and valuable than traditional grief rituals. Memorial sites, after all, can be made accessible to a broad array of individuals and can last for as long as participants need support.

Taking Care of Business


Although you have no say in how others remember you, the existence of memorial Web sites underscores the importance of deciding what to do with your digital persona when you are no longer around. If you leave it to chance, you may have little control. The legal system has yet to establish a coherent system governing the inheritance of digital assets. Only six states have laws that allow next-of-kin access to those resources. The lack of legislation means that the ownership of your profile can revert back to the company who owns that site after your death unless you specify otherwise, Dye says. (Forthcoming legislation may soon prevent anyone except a court-appointed person or a designee of the deceased to gain access to that individual’s online information.)

Dye says she is working on inserting a clause into her will spelling out exactly what she wants done with her digital life after her death. “My online profiles are a part of who I am,” she confesses. Whether or not you adjust your will, Cahn recommends creating a locked paper document or secure database that has passwords and security questions for your e-mail, banking and other online accounts so friends and family can access or deactivate your profiles, notify e-mail correspondents of your passing, and take care of any financial concerns.

For any accounts you have on Google, you now have a more automated option. In April, Google added a free service called Inactive Account Manager (nicknamed “Google Death”) that allows you to decide what happens to your Google-operated accounts after you die.

One option is to delete these accounts. Another is to have Google allow a designated person to view them if you do not log on for a specified period, ranging from three months to a year. Before Google authorizes this transfer, however, the company will send reminders to alternative e-mail addresses and cell phones in one last attempt to get in touch. “Inactive Account Manager allows people to be proactive with their digital assets,” says Nadja Blagojevic, a manager of privacy and security at Google. “It’s important for the people you leave behind.”

You cannot similarly decide the fate of your Facebook profile. In this case, once you die, the choice lands on your friends and family. They can leave the page as is, open to friend requests, Facebook advertisements and photo tags. If someone can provide an obituary or death notice, Facebook will memorialize the page, meaning that no new friends will be added and the person’s name will not appear in news feeds. Loved ones can also request that the deceased person’s page be deleted.


In most cases, your heirs and close friends will not be in a hurry to wipe out all digital traces of you. And although you could try to instruct Google, among others, to erase you from the Internet, making the digital “you” invisible is probably impractical, and even if it were possible, doing so may deepen the pain of those you care about. It makes more sense, then, to construct a path so that those who love you can follow at least some of your online trail and gain access to the digital deposits they might need or want.

This article was originally published with the title “Managing Your Digital Afterlife” in SA Mind 24, 4, 22-23 (September 2013)


(Further Reading)

The Technology of Grief: Social Networking Sites as a Modern Death Ritual. Jordan C. Fearon. Ph.D. dissertation for Antioch University, 2011. http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Fearon%20Jordan%20Ciel.pdf?antioch1307539596

Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning. J. R. Brubaker, G. R. Hayes and P. Dourish in the Information Society, Vol. 29, No. 3, pages 152–163; May/June 2013.

CARRIE ARNOLD is a Virginia-based science writer and author of Decoding Anorexia: How Breakthroughs in Science Offer Hope for Eating Disorders (Routledge, 2012).

How to manage your digital legacy after you die

How to manage your digital legacy after you die

Pretty soon after, Twitter announced that they were putting their deactivation plans on hold due to the general public’s horrified response. Meanwhile, Facebook is already ahead in the death game and provide memorialised accounts of the deceased by freezing their page in time once their death has been proven by evidence such as a death certificate. Facebook users can choose a legacy contact which is a person who can access their account after they’ve died. Twitter wants to offer a similar service and aims to continue with their original plan once this service is in place.

The response to the mass deactivation is strange as in 2018 YouGov carried out a survey which discovered that only 7% of people want their social media accounts to exist after they have died, though, dead Facebook accounts will soon outnumber the living. We live in a world where letting the dead die can be stopped by the immortality of a digital presence and despite the YouGov survey results, it seems many find this fact comforting.

Digital legacy: what’s in a digital footprint?

We have an attachment to our digital footprint, perhaps it’s because it represents a better us, a more fine-tuned version of ourselves. The Digital Legacy Association deals with tackling death in an online context by making plans for your ‘digital estate’ after you have died. With a mission to help people deal with their digital legacies and digital assets after they die, The Digital Legacy Association has set up tools and advice that can be used by anyone. The association works with the NHS and hospices to provide education regarding the end of life in the digital realm. They also provide social media ‘will’ templates, options for websites and blogs after the owner’s death and how people can manage their cryptocurrencies after they have died.

My Wishes is an online service available to the public which allows people to write a will, document funeral wishes, safeguard digital legacies and leave goodbye messages for loved ones. It also offers people the opportunity to record goodbye video messages to be published at their future funerals.

Tech in an online graveyard

Many other companies are now going a step further. Forget planning for the future of your digital legacy when you can immortalise your soul in an app or online.

Replika is an ‘A.I. companion’ touted as a friend that can comfort users whenever they need someone to talk to. Using AI, the app learns more about you the more you talk to it so eventually ends up feeling like a real-life friend that you’ve met. Although the app is meant to replicate the user to become somewhat of a ‘super’ best friend, it was created after one of its founders, Eugenia Kuyda lost her best friend in a tragic accident and found it difficult to find a digital footprint to remember him by. She used thousands of his text messages and emails to create a digital version of him as a chatbot. Eventually, the founders want to app to be “a living memorial of the dead.”

Similarly, Eternime is intent on preserving the memory of someone forever by allowing people to live on for an eternity as a digital avatar. By collecting a person’s thoughts and stories, Eternime wants to build a digital copy of a person once they’ve passed away in what will eventually be a virtual library of dead people for those left behind to find comfort in.

Meminto also wants to create a virtual self that won’t die once the body and mind do through an app that people can use alone or alongside their family and close friends. The app sends questions to be answered by the user with the idea of building a ‘story’ about them over time, sort of like a quick and digital way of keeping a diary. In the end, users receive a printed ‘Meminto stories’ book which they can share with the ones closest to them and eventually be remembered by.

GoneNotGone is also available if you just cannot accept death as an end to yourself on Earth and are summed up by their slogan ‘Live on digitally.’ GoneNotGone is a website where people can upload text, photos, video and audio clips of themselves so that loved ones can remember them once they have died.

It seems that Twitter users concerned over deceased accounts needn’t worry, tech has caught up to how connected we are to our digital selves and how profitable and popular creating an immortal digital person has the potential to be. The internet is already a graveyard to many dead people who still have their comments, likes, profiles and accounts on display, perhaps it makes sense to allow people to choose to capture these memories all in one place with their family and friends having access to them forever.


What happens to your Facebook and Twitter accounts after you die?

What happens to your Facebook and Twitter accounts after you die?

What happens to your Facebook and Twitter accounts after you die?

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When someone you love dies, sure, their spirit endures—but so does their social media. And when their photos, memories or posts surface unexpectedly, it can be a jarring purgatory for those still healing from the loss.

Managing the digital afterlife is “something that people should think about but don’t,” says Jed Brubaker, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, who specializes on the topic. “There’s a whole societal infrastructure—(coroners, cemeteries, funeral directors)—for how we think about death,” he says. “For the most part, that has not extended very well to digital content broadly and social media specifically.”

That can lead to some painful situations.

You may have braced for that birthday reminder, for instance, but then Facebook unexpectedly surfaces an “on this day” memory that just hits you in the gut. LinkedIn nudges you to congratulate a colleague on a work anniversary just a few days after a fatal heart attack took them. Not just awkward, but ouch. That hurts.

Gone, but not forgotten or erased

It’s not that we necessarily want all social records and reminders to go away. Just recently, Twitter pulled an about-face following a backlash when it announced plans to purge some inactive accounts. Folks didn’t want to lose tweets from loved ones who had passed away.

“We’ve heard you on the impact that this would have on the accounts of the deceased,” the company tweeted. “This was a miss on our part. We will not be removing any inactive accounts until we create a new way for people to memorialize accounts.”

And LinkedIn is also working on a plan to memorialize accounts, expected to be ready in the new year.

“This is understandably one of the most sensitive topics for our members, and we want to make sure the account of any member who has passed away is treated with respect,” says LinkedIn spokesperson Suzi Owens.

You can ask LinkedIn to remove the profile of a dead colleague, classmate or family member by explaining your relationship to the person, and among other requested information, supplying the date of death, obituary, and the company the person most recently worked at.

The social network graveyard

For sure, our virtual, digital lives will inevitably outlast our physical ones.

In fact, Facebook could have more dead members than living ones within 50 years, according to academics at Oxford University.

But the broad implications of the digital hereafter remain grave.

“The demise of your biological body does not completely strip you of ethical rights such as privacy and dignity,” the study’s lead author Carl Öhman said last spring. “Overall, Facebook has done a pretty good job in navigating these issues and has balanced the interests of the bereaved with those of the deceased.” But he added that it is up to the bereaved families to curate the digital legacies of loved ones that “both accommodates their grief, and supports the community around the deceased in the best way.”

What to do when you’re still alive

You don’t have to leave all the specifics for friends and family to handle after you’re gone.

With Facebook, you can request to have your account permanently deleted after you die. Or you can designate a “legacy contact” who can look after your memorialized account once you pass. Such a person can then manage tribute posts on the memorial profile, by choosing who can see those posts or contribute their own sentiments. The legacy contact can also respond to new friend requests, delete posts and remove tags.

As with everything else you leave behind, keep in mind that the legacy contact might access content that wasn’t originally visible to him or her.

According to Facebook, however, what this person won’t see are messages, ads you clicked on when you were alive, pokes, security and settings info, and photos you automatically synced but didn’t post.

To get started via web browser, head to Settings on Facebook, click “Memorialization Settings,” click “Edit,” and then examine your options. Should you choose a legacy contact, Facebook will auto-generate an editable message to send to the person you’ve picked. On mobile via the app, whether Android or iPhone, it takes only one more step to get to that option, tapping “Account Ownership and Control.”

Brubaker, who consulted with Facebook on the design of the legacy contact solution, advises people to explicitly give family members or people they trust “symbolic permission” to do what they think is best after they’re gone.

“We hear from lots of bereaved a really deep anxiety around not wanting to disrespect or dishonor the memory of their loved one but being left with a kind of ambiguity and uncertainty about what they should do,” he says.

If wishes aren’t outlined or expressed before death, you as a family member can still request that the member’s Facebook account be removed. You will have to provide proof of the death (an obit or memorial card), and proof that you have the authority to make such a request such as power of attorney documentation, a birth certificate, will or estate letter.

All the many people with Google accounts can similarly set up an Inactive Account Manager to care for the person’s Google remains after death.

But there are limits, as Google explains on the web. “We recognize that many people pass away without leaving clear instructions about how to manage their online accounts. We can work with immediate family members and representatives to close the account of a deceased person where appropriate….We cannot provide passwords or other login details. Any decision to satisfy a request about a deceased user will be made only after a careful review.”

The request for a dead person’s Google data may also require a court order.

It isn’t entirely clear how or even if the social media data from a behemoth such as Facebook that people leave behind remains commercially viable—dead people no longer look at ads, after all.

But there are still strong cases to be made for preserving our digital legacies. They may prove useful artifacts of a bygone era. Future generations may learn from the pictures and posts we leave behind. And to family members and close friends, honoring the people they’ve lost and keeping their memories alive is priceless.

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