Preparing for your digital death: Rest in peace, but leave your passwords handy

Preparing for your digital death: Rest in peace, but leave your passwords handy

Grieving relatives have reportedly asked undertakers to swipe their dead loved ones fingerprints on their digital devices in an effort to access their pictures, memories and social media accounts.

But the practice is often futile, with experts saying even if an undertaker agrees to carry it out, it only works if the body is still “slightly warm”, according to UK Law Society wills and equity chairman Ian Bond.

The message is to rest in peace — but leave your passwords handy, Mr Bond told The Times.

He said lawyers dealing with wills and probate had seen some clients go to the macabre lengths of securing a dead person’s thumbprint in an effort to retrieve photos and messages from devices like iPhones and iPads.

Mr Bond said he had heard of cases where family members were placing the hands of recently deceased persons who were “slightly warm” on mobile phones to unlock them.

“Although this sounds a bit sinister it is done with the best intentions,” he said.

It’s a problem increasingly encountered in a digital age where people conduct their lives and their business online and camera phones have replaced photo albums for storing cherished memories, says Law Society NSW president Doug Humphreys.

Leave those passwords somewhere secure, but where others can find them when you die, is the advice. Picture” Thinkstock
Leave those passwords somewhere secure, but where others can find them when you die, is the advice. Picture” Thinkstock


So much so that last week, NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman asked the NSW Law Reform Commission to investigate whether new laws were needed to clear up who can access data after death.

“Not many of us think about what happens to our digital assets once we’ve gone or once we can’t make decisions anymore,” Mr Speakman said.

“The last thing that bereaved families want are bureaucratic hurdles and legal uncertainty.

“The Law Reform Commission will look at whether our laws are clear and fair enough to make sure people have some certainty over what will happen to their digital assets when they die.”


While he’s unaware of specific incidents in Australia of undertakers being asked for access to the fingerprints of the dead, Mr Humphreys is well aware of the legal and logistical nightmare surviving relatives encounter if their loved one said.

“I haven’t heard directly of undertakers being asked to scan a thumbprint. The thing is, it might sound far-fetched, but I can understand why people might do it. Because people have their lives on their phones. Their pictures, their memories are all there. And unravelling that life once they are gone can mean dealing with international companies, international laws, making the whole process so much harder.”

Increasingly, digital wills are being drawn up by lawyers to include passwords and access codes.

Apple has strict privacy terms whereby unless a person knows the user’s password, they cannot open the device. Facebook doesn’t usually let anyone take over the account of someone who has died unless a user has nominated a “legacy contact”.

What’s needed, is to ensure private emails, social media accounts and digital music libraries are treated just like the concrete items like house and heirlooms are treated, Mr Humphreys said.

Apple has strict privacy terms whereby unless a person knows the user’s password, they cannot open the device. Picture: Supplied
Apple has strict privacy terms whereby unless a person knows the user’s password, they cannot open the device. Picture: Supplied


“As a lawyer — and this is advice I would have given five or ten years ago but is probably even more important now — ‘bucket file’,” he said.

“Where the questions used to be ‘where’s your will? Where are the spare keys to the house? What bank accounts do you have and where do you have them? Where are the insurance policies? What shares do your own?’ and all that sort of stuff; now you need to add your passwords, passcodes and keys to your social media and cloud accounts to the bucket,” he said.

“The logical place to put all of that stuff is probably with whoever is keeping your will. But just make sure someone knows where it is, and it’s safe, but accessible.”

Mr Humphreys said people are often reeling with sudden death, or grim diagnoses so the conversation should be had long before anyone becomes unwell.

“Like anything, this is all about actually being organised and regrettably a lot of us are not,” he said.

“We have to think about making life easier when we are gone — because one thing is certain — none of us are getting out alive,

The Law Reform Commission will report back to the Government with its recommendations, with the review process expected to take between 12 and 18 months.

death in the future may not be the final goodbye

death in the future may not be the final goodbye

death in the future may not be the final goodbye

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Virtual communications that allow you to pretend to connect with a loved one who has died are only likely to prolong the agony of loss
Virtual communications that allow you to pretend to connect with a loved one who has died are only likely to prolong the agony of loss

If you could bring a loved one back from the dead would you choose to do so?

It is (currently!) impossible to resurrect someone who has passed away, but researchers are toying with the idea of creating simulations of dead loved ones whom we could talk to using virtual reality technology. The simulation would be made as near-perfect to the deceased as possible, replicating their voice, mannerisms, laughter and gait.

This would be done after accessing digital data available to the creators, including the person’s social media activity, videos and any other existing personal information.

According to research scientist, Muhammad A. Ahmad, this is just the ‘next step in the evolution of bereavement,’ and he has launched a project to bring this idea to reality.

Ahmad came up with the idea after the death of his father and thinks this would be a way of maintaining a link with the dead person, thus helping people cope with bereavement and grief.

A memorial chatbot is another technical channel for keeping a dead loved one alive and is already a reality thanks to Eugenia Kuyda, who lost a friend in an accident.

She created a memorial bot using hundreds of his old texts, creating the illusion she is still communicating with him.

Analysts say the ‘digital death market’ is set to take off.

Personally, I hate the idea of trying to keep a dead loved one alive! When my father died, for the first few days of his passing, I kept putting on his favourite cardigan.

I cleared out all his belongings on the evening of his death and donated them to charity the next day, but I couldn’t bear to part with this one garment. I could still smell his familiar scent from it, there were even a few of his silvery hairs caught in the wool. Eventually, as the days passed, I found the garment wasn’t bringing me comfort, but instead reinforcing my terrible feelings of loss. I got rid of the cardigan, it felt unhealthy to keep bringing it out, I realised it was merely a garment, the essence of my father was not retained in it. Everything that I needed to remind me of him was stored in the memories in my mind, as nature intended. I knew that my father would have been disturbed at the thought of me embracing his cardy as though he were in it! The thought of being able to put on a headset and see an exact likeness of my late dad or mum, and be able to communicate with them is overwhelming. How on earth would you ever be able to move on after someone’s death, if you can resurrect a simulation of them when you felt like it? How would that impact on one’s real-life relationships? To be able to recreate a lost partner suspended in time, who never ages and has no flaws, would surely put some off becoming involved with a real, aging, flawed human to share life with again, whom in time will also pass on. To think of my husband or son clinging to, or trying to communicate with, a virtual version of myself after I’m gone, is upsetting and unnerving. I wouldn’t want that enduring grief for them. Although researchers believe this may help people cope with grief, I don’t agree. We must grieve effectively to release the love we invested in that person in order to reinvest that love and energy elsewhere. If we are unable to grieve properly, then we cannot move on, and a part of us stays tied to the past. I believe to be able to access and communicate with a near-perfect, interactive, likeness of a dead loved one, would only bind us even more tightly to them. We may never be able to fully acknowledge that they are physically gone. We must learn to accept the finality of our loss when bereaved, and for me one of the things that made this acceptance possible, was eradicating all traces of my parents. Having nothing around to remind me of them, not even a photograph displayed, helped drive the message home in my mind, that they were gone forever. A simulation of them would simply prolong my agony. In bereavement, the letters R.I.P stand for Rest in Peace, not Return if Possible, resurrecting a loved one via virtual reality is disturbingly blurring the lines between life and death.

End of Life Doulas Matter

End of Life Doulas Matter

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You might have heard the word ‘doula’ and thought of a birth coach, as people often seek support to bring a new life into the world, but what about when we are preparing to die? The answer is doulas that are trained to help the dying, a profession that often scares and fascinates people simultaneously.

Death Doulas give different kind of services – anything from being a companion at a bedside, providing practical support for the family or aiding conversations with the person’s doctor, which will then help with making decisions about treatment. Some dying persons simply have a fear of death and need to talk and share with someone who is not afraid of discussing such issues. End of Life Doulas report that these relationships can last months, or even years.

The demand for death doulas is currently on the rise because more people prefer to die at home, at their own terms. Also, the growing number of terminally ill people with life threatening illnesses facing the end of life alone, without significant support from family or friends contributed to the demand.

End of life services are designed to help people plan for or manage their own or their loved ones’ end of life. End of life doulas are usually caregivers with extended knowledge and skills that support persons approaching the end of life and help them put together comprehensive plans for their own deaths.

Today, dying persons and their family members wish more than ever to be involved in the end of life process and through advanced planning they specify medical treatments they wish to receive, organize their medical or legal affairs, create rituals, complete final wishes and in many terminally ill cases, choose and plan the method of their death. End of Life Doulas help make the actual dying process as comfortable and efficient as possible for dying persons and their families, as many people find it emotionally hard dealing with these kind of arrangements.

An End of life Doula provides support and care for those who are dying. It is a person who accompanies an individual on their final journey. It’s not like hospice since there’s no administration of medication. An end of life doula is only there to soothe the passage from the known world into whatever an individual believes awaits them. Many organizations have created end of life doula training workshops and classes to embody what they believe would enable the aspiring doula to be most effective in assisting those who have lived a long journey and ready to rest in peace.

In the same way as mothers to be are encouraged to make a birth plan, it is also helpful for the person approaching the time of their death to make a plan to help them feel more in control, to provide a framework for making important choices, and to help give them the courage needed to ask for what they want in an environment where they might otherwise feel out of control.

This point of transition both in and out of life is often attended by much vulnerability; it is frequently surrounded by fear of the unknown and calls for a state of focused preparation. Doulagivers know how to hold the space for the person in transition, know how to encourage the process of letting go, of easing transitions with both gentleness and grace.

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.”