I’ve Changed My Status to “Dead”
The other day I was scouring LinkedIn for new connections to add when it was suggested that I may know Charla Krupp, Contributing Editor at People Style Watch. After all, we have three shared connections. Sounds great, except for the fact that Charla died of cancer in January 2012. I know because I read her obituary, having been familiar with her many appearances on NBC’s “Today” show. Heck, her own web page is still in the present tense with upcoming appearances, likely from a past year. Her Twitter account is still active, despite the last post being from December 2011. Worse, her publisher still has her author page written in present tense.
I felt a little creeped out and in casual conversations, friends have had similar experiences.
How do we handle dying online?
Someone with whom I attended graduate school has been living with cancer for years. But more recently, as her attention focused on her fight, her husband took over her Facebook page, updating those who care, delving into detail on a separate blog. I suspect (sadly, way too soon) that her page will become a memorial. But that’s because she planned ahead and gave her husband control. We don’t always get advanced notice.
Similar to my classmate’s situation, a guy named Dan Drotar “died” on Facebook. His long-term friend, Michael Angelo Caruso, documented the progression of Dan’s disease and the way he chose to live his last years in his blog. But Dan kept his Facebook page going until the very end. After his death, a friend took over to memorialize Dan’s life.
In both of these cases, what’s so powerful is the outpouring of emotion from people who barely knew the subjects, if at all. But, obituaries become yesterday’s news, and in time, most survivors move on. Yet the memorial or whatever remains online can live on and on.
For an online remembrance site such as Legacy.com, the memorial exists as long as someone wants to foot the bill. If you want read an obit from a newspaper with an online subscription, expect to pay for the opportunity.
My own father died in December 2011. Way before he died, he was annoyed with Facebook and unsuccessfully tried to cancel his account. But he still lives on in a blue-bannered box.
Not an early adopter, he was actually an early rejecter: he decided Facebook wasn’t for him before he even accepted my friend request, but seven friends remain. Who knows if he’s been suggested to be “friended” by others?
Facebook will let users turn a deceased person’s page into a memorial by filling out this form.
I asked Facebook about dying online. Via email, Alison Schumer said,
- Our standard procedure when we receive a report that a user is deceased is to memorialize the account, which restricts profile and search privacy to friends only, but leaves the profile up so that friends and family can leave posts in remembrance. To report an account that needs to be memorialized, people can use this reporting form.
- Also, we do honor requests from close family members to deactivate the account, which removes the profile and associated information from the site. However, for privacy reasons, we do not allow others to access a deceased user’s account.
It’s a quirky situation, to say the least.
Forget the heirlooms. Pass on your passwords.
When you are asked to create a new password for anything from banks to shopping sites, password strength often comes into play. There are all kinds of philosophies for security, but one comes up again and again: at least 8 letters, at least one capitalized, ideally with numbers embedded among the letters. The result is a personal dictionary in a strange language of passwords for various accounts. My shortest password is four characters; the longest is 14. But no one knows which matches which site but me. Should I die prematurely, I have told my husband where a file of them lives, but then he has to remember that location. He’d be the first one to tell you that’s a tall order.
Loved ones have a lot to deal with upon death of others. Immediate attention often focuses on legally required notifications, including banks and government agencies. Then there are things you face every day — the tangible personal effects. Keep, sell, or donate? Then add on all of a person’s online presence with social media, personal websites, and a litany of other places. It’s almost understandable why the latter goes untouched. There’s just too much to do, and for some people, too much to deal with.
Privacy, obviously, is a major concern. Google, for one, has gone to great lengths to address privacy issues, keeping the trust of the user as the primary priority. If you want to get access to someone’s account without his or her directive, you’re going to have to work for it, and pay for it as well. An attorney will have to get the required court order, and even with that, there’s no guarantee that Google will release access.
It’s Chicago 1960 all over again — Three possible solutions
Ideally, a loved one would notify Facebook, LinkedIn, and other sites that a member has passed away. But why not force the hand of these companies a bit? Pages that belong to the deceased still have ads for which companies are expecting (live) eyeballs. If a company is reporting to an advertiser that so many views are expected, isn’t it a bit fraudulent if dead members are counted? It’s almost like the 1960 Presidential Election in Chicago.
I offer several solutions that could be implemented in pieces or as a complete strategy.
1. Require a backup email address that isn’t yours
When you sign up for a website that will process your credit card and other sensitive information or require private personal information, users should be asked for a secondary email belonging to someone else. That other email would only be used in the event of death. Much like security questions strive to protect online accounts, choosing your proxy could do the same.
I hear the likely argument: What if I choose my wife and then she becomes an ex-wife? She’s probably got access to a great deal of your sensitive information already. Just as you’ll be changing passwords and beneficiaries on bank accounts or creating new ones, you would change your alternate email under profile preferences.
2. Hire interns or recent graduates to scour obituaries, Legacy.com, and local papers for death notices
Every college student tries to add an internship or two to his or her Spartan resume. Typically, it helps enforce a passion for future employment, or enlighten a student that a field isn’t ideal. Unfortunately, internships don’t lead directly to jobs as they might have in the past. But they are still considered necessary and even start as early as high school. And an internship could provide a foot in the door that, as any job hunter will tell you, could be priceless.
I propose for these companies with dead members weighing down their roles, hire interns or recent college graduates to verify deaths with obituaries, Legacy.com, local newspapers, and funeral homes.
Half of all college graduates under 24 are unemployed right now. These jobs beat mailrooms as starting grounds and reinforce research skills.
3. Charge ICANN with creating a standardized form and directory. The form would be used to verify death. A person could fill out one form and send one email, copied to as many websites and companies as necessary to inform them of a user’s death.
ICANN already keeps track of every domain. So that part is done. According to ICANN, “The world broadly accepts ICANN as the place to work out Internet governance policies.” If that’s the case, then the word of ICANN should be respected and upheld.
As the owner of several domains, I know ICANN keeps tabs, even on the little guy. So I’m sure a global behemoth like Facebook could work something out. Google’s policy is a good standard for measure. While it’s not easy (requiring a U.S. Court Order in order to access a decedent’s email), having to do it just once would greatly help in the bureaucracy that is death.
Get in line
As I recently witnessed upon the death of my father-in-law, no one teaches you how to “do death.” My husband became a quick study in estate law and other government processes. Dealing with the tax ramifications is still several months off. Several months later, my husband still finds himself spending hours on hold to get information confirmed to avoid subsequent phone calls and returned forms to fill out again. His dad didn’t even have email, in life, once an inconvenience, but oddly in death, a godsend.
In so many ways, the Internet has made life more efficient. Why not let it make death more efficient as well?