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There has been a trend in recent years, both in literature and in life, for Scandinavian concepts that are encapsulated in a single word. Hygge, for example – which is Danish for cosiness, contentment or well-being – dominated the publishing industry in 2016.
Now, the new buzzword on the block is “dostadning” – a hybrid of the Swedish words “death” and “cleaning”. How much these fad words are actually a part of Scandinavian culture is debatable, but dostadning is the new phenomenon outlined in Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. In Europe, the book has already occupied a good deal of reviewing space and according to Time magazine, dostadning will be the hot new trend stateside in 2018.
Magnusson’s book chimes with the current anxiety about clutter in the 21st century. Dostadning advocates the proactive and mindful clearing out of possessions before death. The idea is that it saves relatives the onerous task of making decisions about what to keep and what to throw or give away. The book reflects the simple fact that we are all living longer lives. This results, of course, in more stuff.
But it also means we have more time to get rid of things. We can start planning for our death by slimming down what we leave behind – shedding unnecessary objects in favour of what we actually need. It is the antithesis, perhaps, of the ancient Egyptian tradition of being buried with things that might accompany us into the afterlife.
Magnusson’s top tips for dostadning focus mostly on material possessions – though she suggests keeping a book of passwords for family so they can access online data more easily. But this is no straightforward task, given that more and more of our data – photos, letters, memories – as well as actual things – music and books – exist in digital rather than analogue form. And as more of our lives are logged and lodged virtually, chances are our relatives might not be able to access it.
A documentary about this precise issue aired recently on BBC Radio 4. My Digital Legacy was part of the We Need to Talk about Death series and featured terminally ill patients with an extensive digital footprint who rely on the internet – especially on social media – to connect to the world around them. The programme also heard from bereaved relatives who experienced difficulties in accessing data, including Facebook profiles, of loved ones after their death.
The death manager
My recent short story How To Curate a Life, published by Storgy Books in the anthology Exit Earth, deals with precisely this issue. Set in the not too distant future, the parents of a young woman killed suddenly in an accident try to commission Jesse – a “digital death manager” – not to curate her life but to erase it: to gain access to her files then destroy them.
In this fictional world where everyone is required to dictate the terms of their digital estate, it is illegal for Jesse to tamper with the girl’s online content. And yet, the financial reward would mean freedom from his desk bound job forever.
The story grew from an idea I found online about careers that will be ubiquitous in the future. Digital death management, it seems, is definitely set to become “A Thing”. And just as we now commission solicitors or will writers to oversee our material estate – there will come a time when people will also hire someone to clean up their digital footprint
In our already busy lives, does tending to our online existence give us one more thing to do? Perhaps so. But it’s about taking responsibility for our own stuff. If we don’t make the decisions about what to keep or discard – whether actual or online – then ultimately others will need to. And if we don’t leave clear directions about where to find our digital content, it makes things tougher for everyone.
As Magnusson writes, death cleaning is “a permanent form of organisation that makes everyday life run smoothly”. What better legacy to leave behind than to ease the bereavement process for the ones we love?
What will happen to your Facebook account when you die?
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AS THE OLD saying goes, ‘Two things in life are certain: death and taxes’.
Most people don’t like to think about either. We’re often encouraged to make plans for when we die – so our wishes will be respected and assets divided the way we want.
An area that’s often overlooked is our digital legacy. Social media is a huge part of many people’s lives, for whom posting photos and statuses online is second nature.
Ipsos MRBI’s social networking tracker for January 2017 showed that about six in 10 Irish adults have a Facebook account, while almost three in 10 have Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts.
Over time, a vast amount of material documenting our lives can build up on social media. So, what happens to it all when we die?
If you’re particularly organised you might have made plans for this in your will or signed up to a service that helps you lay out your wishes.
Laura Rooney Ferris, the Irish Hospice Foundation’s (IHF) Information Manager, says trying to gain access to a loved one’s social media accounts after they die is “another layer of admin that people have to deal with” while grieving, which can be “quite distressing”.
It’s something most people are not aware of until they have to deal with it when someone passes away … Managing someone’s digital estate is something most of us don’t think about.
Rooney Ferris notes that social media accounts can be “a big part of someone’s identity” and contain vast amounts of material – particularly if the person blogs or vlogs regularly.
She says a number of people have raised digital legacy issues with the IHF, such as the difficulties they’ve faced in accessing a late loved one’s accounts if they don’t know their passwords.
“People can be drawn into a lengthy administrative nightmare, going back and forth with the provider.”
Rooney Ferris compares trying to make changes to a person’s social media presence after their death to shutting down their bank accounts – the person needs to prove their relationship to the deceased and prove they’ve died, usually through providing a copy of their death certificate or an obituary.
This can be really distressing stuff, particularly if it’s a sudden death or if it’s a younger person who has died. It’s another layer of distress for the grieving person.
Rooney Ferris says a way around this is to make a record of your passwords in a password-protected document and share it with someone you trust who can access your accounts or contact the relevant companies when you die.
This can also be very useful in relation to unlocking a person’s phone or cancelling subscriptions to websites such as Spotify and Netflix.
Grieving in a digital age
“Often the first thing we do when someone dies is get out the photo albums … Now most of this is digital – this is great as it’s easily accessible now, but the ability to access this in perpetuity is a lot more complicated,” Rooney Ferris states.
She says the IHF wants people to be conscious of what they would like to be done with their social media presence when they die and be aware of the fact policies differ depending on the platform.
With this mind, she asks people to consider the following questions about their digital footprint:
- Who would be your digital executor?
- Who would you like to have access to your accounts?
- If you Google yourself and see how much material is out there, are you okay with this being available when you’re gone?
- Do you see this as your digital legacy or are you happy for it to disappear?
Rooney Ferris says having a plan in place can “eliminate some distress for loved ones”.
Policies on what happens to a person’s social media account when they die vary depending on the platform.
Facebook, for example, provides an option for people to set to up a ‘legacy contact‘. This person will be tasked with looking after your account if it’s memorialised in the event of your death.
The chosen person will have the option to do things like:
- Write a pinned post for your profile, such as to share a final message on your behalf or provide information about a memorial service
- Respond to new friend requests
- Update your profile picture and cover photo
People also have the option of allowing their legacy contact to download a copy of what they’ve shared on Facebook.
The legacy contact can’t:
- Log into your account
- Remove or change past posts, photos and other things shared on your timeline
- Read your messages
- Remove any of your friends
In a statement, a spokesperson for Facebook in Ireland told TheJournal.ie: “Facebook is a place to share and connect with friends and family.
For many of us, it’s also a place to remember and honour those we’ve lost. When a person passes away, their account can become a memorial of their life, friendships and experiences.
They noted that, as an alternative to using the legacy contact system, “People can let us know if they’d prefer to have their Facebook account permanently deleted after death.”
The spokesperson added that the company doesn’t share stats on how many profiles have been memorialised.
The Digital Legacy Association in the UK carried out a ‘Digital Death’ survey in 2015.
Nine in 10 of the people surveyed had made no plans about what they want to happen to their social media accounts when they die, while over half said it was important or very important for them to be able to view social media profiles of someone they care about after they die.
The association provides a social media will template. It’s not a legally binding document, rather a statement of preference.
Dead Social is another online resource for people who want to have more control over how their social media accounts are used when they die.
It advises people on their options in the event of their death and allows them to pre-plan messages or videos that can be uploaded to their profiles after they’ve passed away.
“What’s really interesting about Dead Social is that it allows you you to have quite a deep level of control over what happens [to your accounts when you die],” Rooney Ferris notes.
In terms of prerecorded messages due to be shared after a person’s death, she warns: “It might be a good idea to tell people about this so they know in advance. It could be very distressing to receive messages from beyond the grave.”
The IHF’s Think Ahead initiative helps people to make plans around death and dying. More information can be read here.
Who will get your iTunes when you die?
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Your 20,000-song iTunes library is valuable both monetarily and as an artifact of your life, so you’d like to leave it to your children. Legally, you probably can’t. At least not yet. But, as a practical matter, you can share your online assets in a limited fashion, as long as you plan ahead.
And it’s not only your iTunes library. Do you have e-books stashed on a Kindle or Nook? Do you sell items on eBay or use PayPal? Bitcoins? A survey back in 2011 by McAfee (now Intel Security INTC, +1.52% found that Americans value their digital assets at more than $54,000 on average.
But there’s no doubt that divvying up those online assets and giving them to your heirs can be complicated.
You’re not the owner
One problem is that generally you don’t actually own the digital music and books you buy on your computer and mobile devices — you’ve only bought licenses to listen and view those products.
Also complicating matters from an estate-plan perspective: These accounts are governed by the terms-of-service agreement to which you agreed (or, more likely, clicked that box without reading) upon opening the account. Often, service providers have created those agreements to comply with federal laws that limit access to account information to authorized users.
Here are some ideas for how to share your online music, book and social-media accounts with your heirs:
The Apple iTunes terms of service agreement generally states that your license is nontransferable and will end automatically if you fail to comply with the terms of the agreement.
The agreement “doesn’t seem to contemplate a transfer of the license after death,” says Sharon Klein, the New York Metropolitan Region president of Wilmington Trust, N.A., a wealth advisory firm. “It’s silent about what happens when someone dies. It just says you can’t transfer it, period.”
Until the language changes — if it changes — one option some might employ is to give their heirs the access information for their iTunes account. Just be aware: Doing so may be a violation of the terms of service. If your heirs live with you, consider setting up the “Home Sharing” tool. Read more here.
Another option with some music files is to save them to your computer or a hard drive, and bequeath that to your heirs, but whether that will work depends on the type of music file.
Generally, you’re not going to be able to transfer your e-books to your heirs, because the service agreements usually say the license is nontransferable and e-books often are protected by digital rights management (DRM) software, so you can’t copy them.
Like with an iTunes account, if you really want someone else to be able to read your books, you might need to be willing to break the terms of service; that is, give your Kindle or Nook or e-reader login credentials to an heir, so they can read the books you’ve already purchased, at least while your account remains active. A better bet might be to give your executor the login credentials to your account so he or she can close it.
People often store their Bitcoins in a digital wallet, usually via an app on their phone or laptop. In that case, you could provide your user ID and your password to your designated heir so they can access your account.
But, while digital wallets do provide some level of security, there is the danger that hackers might access your account. To avoid that problem, it’s possible to pull your Bitcoins, which essentially consist of serial numbers, off the network and put them into a safe in your house or a bank safe-deposit box. The problem is it takes some computer savvy to do this.
For more information, read this Bitcoin Foundation guide on protecting your Bitcoins.
Also see this guide on the website Bitcoin.org (note that this is an open-source website with contributors world-wide).
If you’ve posted photos online that you want your heirs to receive, read your terms of service to see what the provisions are for an inactive account. But, it might be easier to simply make backup copies, store them in a safe place, and be sure your executor knows where to find such items.
“Maybe [your executor] can’t get access to Flickr, but if I’ve backed up all my photos on a hard drive, then it’s fine,” said Alexandra Gerson, a lawyer with Helsell Fetterman in Seattle.
Grieving families are often shocked to find they can’t gain access to their loved one’s email messages. That said, some companies will provide copies of emails to an executor, and you increase that likelihood if your estate plan includes instructions for your digital assets.
In some cases, the service provider may delete the account. For example, the terms of service for Yahoo email state that all rights to your account terminate on your death and that the data can be deleted. Read Yahoo’s policy.
That’s why it’s important to leave behind a list of your accounts, including each account’s username and password (such information should not be included in your will), plus instructions as to what you’d like done with each account (see more in instructions link above).
Google GOOG, +0.41% eased this process by offering its Inactive Account Manager. The tool lets you control how your Gmail and other Google accounts are handled after your death. You dictate who should be notified in the event your account is inactive for a specified period; you also decide whether your trusted contact should be able to download the data, or whether the account should be deleted.
Generally, social-media websites won’t give another user access to an inactive account. You could ask your digital executor to manage your accounts on your behalf; that is, you provide a list of your login credentials for each account — though this likely violates the terms of service.
If you don’t provide access to your account, here are the options available to your executor for three popular sites:
Facebook will delete an account or allow the user’s timeline to be memorialized once the company receives proof of death and proof of the relationship between the decedent and the person making the request. Read more here.
Twitter won’t give you access to a decedent’s account, but the company will delete an account, if certain information is provided. Read more here.