Facebook and death: Using social media to grieve and memorialize

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For many of Facebook’s estimated 1.3 billion active users, the social media platform has become an extension of their lives. Nearly every event is shared out with friends near and far. But what happens after that life has come to an end? Facebook has cornered the market on death too.

In yet another indication of how social media continues to take over our lives, over the last few years Facebook has become a place where users can process death. We come here to grieve for those we’ve lost, connect with family to celebrate and toast the lives of loved ones and even join the larger online community in remembering those who have passed on.

Now we can all die like celebrities

The recent death of comedian Robin Williams is a prime example of a worldwide conversation with a single point of focus. So many people were posting their thoughts and feelings at the loss of the beloved celebrity that most users’ News Feeds carried nothing else, prompting articles on how to filter your newsfeed to keep from being swamped by it.

Now, while much of the initial buzz has ended, Williams has a memorial page where followers can post photos and tell stories. It allows all those who loved and appreciated his work to gather in an online community, express their sorrow and grieve together.

In the pre-Facebook days, people would have been notified of the deaths of friends and loved ones via word of mouth or newspaper obituary columns – or (gasp!) by a personal phone call. They would have attended a funeral, connected with family and friends, and then moved on. And for those left behind, memorializing their loved one was a solitary activity, likely contained in photo albums.

Facebook has allowed an unprecedented level of interconnectivity and communication, allowing people all over the world to share their sorrow, even when unable to personally attend a funeral. And when the anniversary of that passing or some other significant event regarding that person comes up, sharing it on Facebook (which is now a regular – and somewhat disconcerting habit) allows others to share memories of the departed. And, depending on your social connections, you memory could live on for a very long time.

How Facebook keeps you alive

When a Facebook user dies, unless specific action is taken, their profile will continue on. This can lead to confusion and at-times awkward conversations with the surviving family. In an effort to mitigate this potential pain, Facebook allows for the surviving family to convert the page into a memorial.
Those who are already friends with the individual will be able to post their thoughts and feelings to the deceased on the memorial page, but that profile will no longer be found in google searches nor will that profile be able to be tagged or added.

Only those who were close to the deceased and can offer proof of death can have access to changing the profile into a memorial.

In the case of celebrities like Williams, or when a good friend passes away but you do not have access to the account, there are still ways to memorialize. My Memorials is a Facebook based app that allows a user to create their own memorial page for a loved one or celebrity. The page can be shared, visitors can sign a guestbook and add their own photos and memories to the memorial.

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The business of death

Another app has been designed to help give those left behind some measure of closure in the case of death. If I Die is an app that allows a user to create a video or a text message that would be posted to their profile page in the event of death. Once the user has created their message, they entrust one or more of their Friends to activate the message if they should die.

While for some this might seem morbid, a common lament among those who surviving the passing of a loved one is the opportunity to ‘talk one last time’. While it is not a true dialogue, the If I Die message at least gives that sense of having the one final conversation.

Having the ability to connect with one another, even if only on a virtual level, can help with the grieving process. It binds us in a community, despite being spread across the world. Being able to memorialize loved ones, hear how others felt and share in that sense of loss can be healing in its way. If nothing else, it reminds us that we are not alone.

How do you feel about the role Facebook now plays in death?

@MaryCLong maryclong@digitalmediaghost.com Mary C. Long is Chief Ghost at Digital Media Ghost. She writes about everything online and is published widely, with a focus on privacy concerns, specifically social sabotage.