How Facebook Changes the Way We Mourn Death (Part 3)(Note: the is the third post in a four-part series about Facebook and death.)

Back in March of this year, Technorati reported that there are already over 30 million dead people with Facebook profiles. Can you imagine how that number will skyrocket over the next 10 years?

Social media adds an entirely new dimension to the mourning process. Facebook is a great social utility, but how does its utility change after a profile-owning friend passes away?


Now, we’ll take a look at the negative side of having Facebook available as a mechanism for mourning.

1. Facebook extends the mourning process. Let’s face it: Facebook is…well, permanent. As best we can tell right now in the year 2012, at least. It’s a gigantic company with gigantic revenue, so I suspect it will be around for a long time in some iteration or another. And what does this mean for mourners?

A dead friend with a Facebook profile will keep coming back to haunt you — especially in the days and weeks immediately after their death. I can’t even count how many times Facebook recommended that I “nudge” Bubba, a friend of mine who died in a car fire over two years ago, because he hadn’t logged in for a few days. Then, for a few weeks. Then, for a few months. They mistook his death for a mere disinterest in social media. They thought, perhaps, that he’d taken up a new hobby. That he’d begun traveling more or interacting with people IRL.

But no. He was dead, and Facebook made every effort to remind me daily. And even now, two and a half years after Bubba’s death, I still receive updates on my timeline whenever someone tags his goofy smile in a photo or writes on his wall.

It’s worth mentioned that, according to Technorati, family members may “memorialize” a loved one’s Facebook page (i.e., mark the person as “deceased”) and thus prevent much of the above:

Facebook has a memorialization process  that essentially locks the account of the deceased. Only family members can request the site be taken down, and only family and friends at the time of the reported death are able to continue to comment. No word on how death shows up in your timeline.

Of course, that poses some ethical questions in and of itself: should someone’s Facebook profile be “locked” or taken down? Will future generations see this as a disservice to researching their ancestors? Will it turn mourning into an exclusionary process if only “friends” are allowed to share memories on the wall of the deceased? What about co-workers or acquaintances?

2. The internet will dump digital litter all over your loved’s one’s grave. Right now, Bubba’s wall — once a very touching artifact to scroll through — is filled with auto-invites for news and birthday apps.

I once knew a guy in college named Dave. I didn’t know him very well, but we were friends on Facebook from Day 1 because, well, when my college got Facebook, everyone excitedly started friending everyone they knew. Dave spent some late nights in the computer lab that I was charged with monitoring as part of my work-study job. We chatted casually a few times a week.

Sometime during my junior year of college, he and both of his parents were T-boned while turning left into a restaurant on US-15. All three of them died instantly.

Dave’s profile is still on Facebook. He wasn’t too well-known or popular, and it’s sad to see his empty Facebook wall. People wish him a happy birthday in heaven once per year, but that’s about it. His wall suggests that people only remember him when Facebook prompts them to wish him a happy birthday, and it’s upsetting to see.

I mean, at least with a physical grave in a cemetery, a family member can always just hope and assume that loved ones are visiting the grave regularly to pay their respects. They can assume that friends and family are thinking about and/or praying for the deceased. But Facebook makes these previously-private actions so incredibly public and so strangely trackable.

3. The dead will be remembered by their final profile photo. What profile photo do you have on Facebook right now? Take a look at it. If you die tomorrow, that photo is how people are going to remember you.

My friend Bubba’s photo is a picture of he and his friend Danny, power tools in hand, tackling some kind of a porch renovation project. And he will forever be tackling that same porch renovation project.

If you die tomorrow, how will your profile picture represent you? Does it give others an accurate image of who you are?

Later this week, we’ll wrap things up in the fourth part of this mini-series on Facebook, death, and mourning.


Creative Commons License photo credit: Threthny