What happens when you die….on the internet?

This week’s post is a bit morbid and is unfortunately influenced by the untimely passing of one of my high school friends over spring break. When I returned from spring break, my friend and I started talking about how family members clean up the lose ends of a love one. In today’s world, people have more just a physical presence; they have an online identity too. So what happens to your online identity when you die?


Facebook has a policy to “memorialize” the page of a deceased person. This means that the person’s account settings are permanently changed to that their privacy is more strict but friends can still leave messages on their wall. According to Facebook,

Memorializing the account removes certain more sensitive information like status updates and restricts profile access to confirmed friends only. Please note that in order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone. We do honor requests from close family members to close the account completely.

According to the New York Times in an article from 2007, people’s Facebook walls can become a way for friends and family to express their sadness, memories, and condolences to the family of the deceased.  The article details the experience one family had after their daughter died of an illness. The family found looking at their daughter’s page as therapeutic as they were able to see all the lives that were connected to their daughter. They were also able to easily see pictures of her.

“It’s almost like having an open diary,” Burke [Mother of the deceased girl] said. “It’s good for when you don’t have a photo album handy, just go to the page and look there. Look at some happy times.

When my friend passed away, many of my other friends only found out through Facebook. After some one dies, there is always confusion and grief. Facebook, in my opinion, helped the family let others know of what had happened without having to make difficult phone calls. It also allowed friends to know the time and place of her memorial service.It’s been almost 3 weeks, and new messages are still appearing on my friend’s wall.


What about all those passwords?

There is a new program that is to debut in April called Legacy Locker. Basically, a user will store all of his or her passwords with this pay service. In the event of your death, Legacy Locker will release this information to specified family members. It can also send out farewell letters or make posts on certain websites.  (Legacy Locker needs two people to verify that a person has died and requires a death certificate). You could probably write all of this information down, but with the dynamic nature of the Internet, you probably would have joined a few more sites or changed passwords before you updated you sheet of paper. Just take a minute to think about all the places that you have accounts..Facebook, Twitter, Online banks, ESPN, your online video game community (or fashion website, or dog lovers community or…or..or..). It would be a mess.


Depending on your online involvement, you may be a part of multiple different online communities. For instance, many people participate in online forums, where they may be regular posters. If you happen to get hit by a bus, how does the community know, especially if you never used your real name? Another service, similar to Legacy Locker is called Death Switch. Death Switch requires that you log in periodically. After not doing so for sometime and being prompted a few times by the service, Death Switch will that you are dead or critically disabled and starting emailing your list of contacts.  You can set the prompts to be once a day or once a year, “depending on your lifestyle.”(I would imagine skydivers do the oncec a day setting while chess players pick lengthier gaps).  I just hope you never forget your Death Switch password otherwise you will have some very upset relatives. To see a sample notice, go here.

10 Responses

  1. Evan, I am sorry to hear about your loss.

    I am grateful for the information that you have provided us with in this post. It is nice to think that I will have a legacy after my death thanks to online social networks. It is also a good way to allow families and friends to continue to remember their loved ones.

    Thanks for posting on such a personal subject.

  2. I am very sorry to hear about the untimely death of your friend.

    It is a very interesting question you raise here… one that I would like to not think of… I checked my saved password on my Firefox, which I re-installed this past Christmas after wiping my machine, and it has 23 distinct accounts on different websites… there are many others that don’t let you save passwords, or that I have not accessed since December.

    One of Bucknell’s student died a couple year’s back in a car crash and we all paid homage on his Facebook page. Similarly, a student at Caldwell passed away last week and Facebook was used not only to pay homage but to create a fan page and raise funds to send the body back to his home country in South Asia.

    Our on-line lives are all over the place. Try Googling your name… if you are an avid user of the Internet… you will be surprised to see all the places where your name appears on Big Spidey’s Web…

  3. I’m so sorry too Evan…and I actually can relate with a very similar story. One of my best friends from home had a sibling pass away, and her facebook page has been active ever since. After almost 2 years, it seems that there is more activity than ever on the page from not only her friends and loved ones, but also people who were just acquaintances. I think it has been a very helpful personal grieving mechanism for these people, and also a great way to remember the person she was. However, an event such as this does serve as a reminder that once we post something on the internet, it does not disappear.

  4. After reading about your stories about relieving grief over Facebook and other social networking sites, an idea I find extremely beneficial and sincere, I couldn’t help but think, will there ever be an internet graveyard? This might sound like a dumb question, but for example, when a WoW character dies can a user set up a burial ceremony? Is there an obituary of the internet?

  5. Evan, I’m sorry about your friend. Thank you for sharing this blog with us though. I was always very curious about what happened with Facebook pages and such when a person died. I never really wanted to look it up though, so thank you. I am wondering if some of the services you mentioned, for instance, legacy locker, would be a little intimidating to sign up for.

  6. Thanks for the condolences.

    @zuffola No problem. Glad I could help.

    Big Spidey’s Web comment made me laugh in class today.

    Yeah, I guess signing up for that website would be like writing a will. Very strange.

  7. After reading this I couldn’t help but think that it is almost as if the internet can immortalize someone. It’s almost similar to the way in which great authors live on through their books and I can turn on the TV on any given day and see actors like John Candy or Heath Ledger. One of the more disturbing things I have witnessed with the unfortunate passing of two of my high school class mates is the phenomenon of having Facebook groups dedicated in their honors with wall posts directly addressing the deceased individual. In a way I understand that this is a source of venting and serves as a type of memorial, but I have still been bothered by this practice.

  8. […] Best of March 30 to April 3 Posted on April 7, 2009 by Kelli Best Blog: Evan  – What happens when you die….on the internet? […]

  9. Absolutely fascinating topic.

    I am sorry to hear about your friend.

    I have a friend who uses twitter as an informal type of watch. Not death, but simply his mental health (he is occasionally hospitalized). The technology gives him more control over sensitive communications with loved ones. They don’t have to check in as much and thus are freer to be “normal” with him.

  10. Excellent post Evan.

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