Death and Your Online World

Yes, this is a morbid topic, but we need to talk about it.

There was a time when people stayed in one place their entire life. Everyone you ever knew was most likely in that same place. The world of an individual probably knew in full when that individual drew his or her last breath.

Now we move about, but more importantly, we are in contact with people all over the world. What happens when a person with global contacts dies? How do other people learn about this event?

The Idea Behind This Blog Post

I started to write this post one year ago. The idea came to me about seven years ago when I was exchanging emails with a friend in another country. He travelled a lot as an independent consultant and spent much time away from his family. This was in the pre-Twitter, pre-TripIt, pre-Facebook, pre-all-sorts-of-social-networking-applications days. I wanted to give him my contact information because we were working on a project, and I wanted to be sure that he could get in touch with me when necessary.

Suddenly the topic was out there: what if you don’t hear from a virtual colleague for quite a while? How do you find out what happened? He also realized that his wife might not know everything she needed to know if something happened to him. We both concluded that we ought to write a list of important information that our partners, families, and friends could use if something happened to us.

If you are living with someone, you probably know where the bank papers and insurance policies are stored. We bacame aware of a possible lack of knowledge about our online lives. It was not merely a matter of writing up bank account details. We wanted our virtual circle of acquaintances to know what was happening. We had online activities that needed to be suspended or cancelled.

Real-Life Examples

In the seven years since this topic first came up, I have realized many times over that it is a highly relevant topic.

  • I recently noticed a friend listed in my Gmail contact list, along with the music he was listening to. His name was marked as “Away”. He was more than away. He was dead, and he had died many months before. I rarely look at that contact list, so it was a creepy shock to see. Obviously, the email account was still active for whatever reason. Could it be that the wife didn’t get around to closing it or didn’t know about it? It made me think a checklist for survivors would be handy. When you are grieving, you a) cannot think straight and b) have a ton of things to do.
  • On one of my email discussion lists, I have seen three obituaries in the past few years. One person wondered “where’s so-and-so” and put in the effort to find the answer; he reported his findings to the list and told us about a memorial page where we could express our condolences. It was nice that this person cared enough so that the group could show their respect. The family was very grateful. In another case, a woman died and her spouse contacted the group. Apparently he did have some kind of list of “things to do”, one of which was to contact the person’s virtual networks, where she had spent lots of time and energy over the years. Again, we could show our respects to a person who had given much of her knowledge and friendship over the years. Again, the husband was very grateful and comforted by our condolences.
  • When my mother died, I discovered first hand all the effort involved in contacting her large circle of friends. Due to her age, many of those friends were contacted via letters. I was very relieved when I found friends who had email addresses. Getting email accounts and other online activities closed was time consuming and sometimes required a death certificate. I found that when a person dies (at least in the U.S.), you can request several death certificates and you should do so. They cost a lot of money later on, and you will need copies for various things – like requesting accounts to be closed.
  • In another case, a friend nearly died in an accident. Fortunately, he survived. I helped the non-tech-savvy wife contact his large circle of online friends. I knew many of the online contacts because that is how he and I met. I could write to a group and ask them to pass along the news. I would then get mails from strangers who had heard the news via forwarded mails. I printed out all the mails of support that I received and gave them to the wife. I also needed to cancel an engagement that the friend had – the event was arranged entirely online, so the wife had no phone number to call. I notified the event coordinator by email and the issue was resolved. I had one great benefit from helping the wife. Replies came to me from my mails and my forwarded mails. I saw firsthand the outpouring of support and love. It was beautiful and moving to witness. This convinced me that our networks do want to know what happens to us. They care because many connections in these networks become genuine friendships.

Things and People

My point here is to make sure someone can tie up all the loose ends in your life when you are gone. For example, I have a rough list of all the subscriptions I have online. In some cases, who cares about cancelling a newsletter subscription? (Maybe it’s because I’ve administered those and dislike all those bouncing mails!) There are also newspaper subscriptions, car payments, debts, and so on that fall into the things category.

From a practical point of view, “things” are most important. Can your partner cover outstanding debts and get at critical information for the authorities.

For me, people are the most important part, and this feeling has grown over the years. Make sure you have a list of people who should be told about your passing. I have seen outpourings of condolences in emails and on Facebook and Twitter. These condolences do provide comfort. It is beautiful to see the love and friendship that exist.

I found two articles on this topic last year, and the New York Times published one this year:

Last, but not least, make a will and make your wishes clear. A lawyer told me that there can be ugly scenes when families disagree about, say, cremation versus burial. You need to tell people what you want while you can. It can feel uncomfortable, but it does have to be done, you know.

Now go hug the one you’re with.

4 replies on “Death and Your Online World”

  1. Nice post, Karen. This issue is only going to get more complicated as more and more people spend part of their lives in the online world.

    I wrote a post in a similar vein last year that may help too: http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/in-the-event-of-my-death/ and another about a site where you can delete many of your online accounts at once: http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/how-to-delete-an-online-account/ (I haven’t tried this service so I can’t vouch for it).

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