Facebook After Death

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

Illustration by Kevin Hawkins

Three people on my Facebook friend list are no longer alive. Their continued existence online—alongside millions of living people—is evidence that we as a society do not yet know how to respond to a person’s death when it comes to social media.

I found out my friend had died back in March 2013. Someone on Facebook broke the news through a status update. The shock made my entire body numb. Facebooksomehow knew the reality before my brain could register what “R.I.P.” on a photo really meant.

At times, Facebook made his death feel like a battleground over ownership rights. To express grief online was to pitch a flag and publicly claim a part of him. Between the likes and tags and photos, it became too easy to wonder if someone was using the sympathy to gain attention. Why did that person decide to write a status and tag his name instead of writing on his wall? So people outside of their mutual friends could see? Was the commercial nature of Facebook, the side that trades in notifications, making me cynical? The right to openly grieve, at least in my head, became a political statement. So I backed away, too afraid that another person would assume the same thing of me; that the friendship we’dhad wasn’t good enough to warrant a photo. I can’t say I did the right thing here. And although a part of me wants to think so, I’m not sure if anyone is in the position to decide which people on his friendship list are ‘worthy’ enough, or if their intentions were pure. To quote one of his close friends:

“We don’t lay claim over anything of his just because we were close with him. It doesn’t mean we get to decide who are his real friends. He touched a lot of people in different ways, and they can post whatever they want to his wall, as it is a way to cope, and show they care.” 

In 2009, Facebook introduced the option to memorialise a deceased person’s profile. No one can log into a memorialised account, pre-existing content cannot be altered, the profile will not be suggested as ‘someone you may know’ and perhaps most importantly, there will be no seemingly insensitive prompts to wish them a happy birthday.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the accounts I am in contact with have been changed into an official memorial, yet they also have not been deleted. They are somewhere in between the two; being used by friends and family to reminisce about warm memories and old conversations, and to maintain a connection with the deceased.

“I guess it still feels too early to just close it, but someday it will go,” said one of his good friends. “I mean I still have his number in my phone, and his old messages. I am not ready for his Facebook to be gone.”

In this sense, Facebook acts as a virtual photo album, something you would never throw out. However, I can understand that its continued existence could become uncomfortable; there is a disconnect between Facebook as a tool for documentation, and Facebook for those who have something to update.

My perspective on his Facebook profile comes from a position of bias. I am in no way able to speak on behalf of his family or his best friends, nor can I speak on behalf of someone he shared a tutorial with or met once at a house party. This doesn’t mean these people of different intimacy levels don’t share opinions about the value of his account after death—more so that it’simpossible to generalise. For weeks after his death, hundreds of posts and photos pooled onto his Facebook wall.Now, over a year later, a similar community can still come together on his page to remember him.

“At anniversaries and birthdays it’s also a way to recognise those days, and in a way to see how other friends who you no longer normally stay in touch with are holding up… A simple like to their post shows that everyone still cares for each other,” said a close friend. While I have my reservations about how a profile is used, if there is a silver lining, this is it.

It’s clear there isn’t a right or wrong way to handle an account of this nature. You can’t look at the morality of its presence like a multiple-choice question with a clear answer; it’s more of a group project, where many ideas are put forward and everyone hopes the outcome is positive. Facebook gives families and friends the opportunity to reflect on and share a part of their loved one’s life.

A social media profile can become a memorial, a place to remember, or be removed completely. All paths can tell us something about the nature of grief, and our lives online.