Digital Manners


“What should I do about my wife’s Facebook page after her death?”

Question: My wife, Rochelle, died about three months ago and I’ve been in the process of handling of her estate. My question for you is about Rochelle’s Facebook page. I was thinking of deleting the account soon, but I see that many of our friends continue to post on her wall – almost as though they’re talking with her. This actually gives me a lot of comfort and so now I’m on the fence. Have the rules of etiquette caught up with death and dying in the twenty-first century?

Answer: First of all, my condolences on the loss of your wife.

You make an astute point about the evolving rules of etiquette around death and dying. New technologies have ushered in changes to longstanding rituals, starting with sharing the news of a death. Instead of the ring of a telephone, these days it’s just as likely to be the ping of an email or text message (or even a tweet) that conveys news of a death. New times also mean new approaches to funerals and memorials, where mourning and grief over a death are likely to be counterbalanced by the celebrating of a life.

The ubiquity of social media presents its own set of challenges — one that Facebook founders certainly hadn’t considered at the beginning. (After all, the youthful crowd that invented and initially flocked to Facebook didn’t have death and dying on their personal timelines — most people in their early twenties can’t really envision a status of “deceased.”)

But we all do grow up and, sadly, we all confront mortality at some point. In response, Facebook created memorial profile pages, which allow us to visit, chat and stay connected with our dearly departed friends and family. This past holiday season I saw the Facebook pages of several recently departed friends positively lit up with beautiful memories of Christmases past along with a new outpouring of grief and mourning. On one page, this comment was posted right before Christmas:

“The holidays without a conversation with you. Just doesn't seem right. The day we let you out in the sea, I picked up a rock on that beach. I keep it with me as the reminder stone of the man, the stone, you were to my entire family. Miss you lots. This is going to be our first holiday season without you being here.”

In fact, the tributes and comments that accumulate on these pages remind me of the floral bouquets piled up on grave markers. One Facebooker commented: “I would never go to a cemetery to visit a plot, but I love seeing my deceased friend's name. And with the name and photos it is like the stone visits me.”

Since you find comfort in seeing messages posted to Rochelle – and since it may bring comfort to her other friends — I’d recommend letting the page live on as a memorial rather than deleting it. To “memorialize” an account, you need to notify Facebook, which will then convert an ordinary page into a memorial one (click here to do so).

Transitioning someone’s profile to a memorial also blocks any further status updates, and prevents the deceased from showing up as a suggested friend. Believe me, you don’t want a status update from someone whom you know to be dead. And it can get pretty creepy if the deceased keeps turning up on lists of suggested friends as many of us have experienced. Because I had a number of friends in common with the late Elizabeth Edwards, and I guess because John Edwards was too busy being a new dad and dealing with his attorneys, Elizabeth’s angelic face was repeatedly positioned as a suggested new friend for months after she died. In the end, I just went ahead and blocked her page (which, by the way, is no sign of disrespect).

Before you ask Facebook to convert Rochelle’s profile, though, consider what she would have wanted. Did the two of you ever discuss what to do with her social media accounts, email accounts, and other online memberships after she was gone? As odd as it sounds, the disposition of one’s electronic footprint should be a routine part of twenty-first century estate planning. So as you think about what to do with Rochelle’s Facebook account, you should also be considering how to maintain or terminate other online profiles and accounts she may have had, including family trees, online dating profiles, list serves, and more.

And practical jokers beware: Facebook doesn’t make it easy to memorialize an account — you do have to produce proof of the death itself and of your right to request the memorial.

More Digital Manners
"Google reveals too much about me!"
"I want to come out on Facebook but my best friend is telling me 'no!'"
"My seat mate was watching porn on the plane!"
"Looking for love online."
"What do I do? My boss has sent me a 'friend' request on Facebook."