Death Etiquette For The Social Media Age

by @edent | # # | Read ~505 times.

My friend died last month. When I was a lad, it seemed that I was always going to funerals for some ancient relative. Everyone looks old when you’re a kid. But my friend wasn’t old. He was about my age. He had a trendy, digital job.

The funeral is done, the grief lingers on. What should I do now?

Do I stop following his accounts?

I don’t want to. In part, because I don’t want to think he’s gone. But on a practical level, if I don’t then I know some well-meaning AI will suddenly say “Hey! You haven’t talked to your mate in aaaaages! Why not give him a poke?! ?”

Of course, if I do unfollow him, I’ll get a whole bunch of “people you know also follow…” with his face staring back at me.

A pop up from Flickr telling me never to miss a post from Luke

Or, perhaps one of the apps he authorised will get hacked, and I’ll be left facing post-mortem-spam.

Should I delete his number from my phone?

Last year a different friend gave up on social media and deleted all her accounts. One day, an app in my pocket buzzed to tall me that she’d joined their service. I was flabbergasted and sent her a quick hello.

It wasn’t her. She’d changed phone numbers and – as happens in the UK – the number was eventually assigned to someone else. It was that interloper who’d joined. But the social-network-graph doesn’t really account for such changes to “unique” identifiers.

Deleting someone from your contacts has a grim feeling of finality to it. Perhaps I just need to get it over and done with.

How do you let people know?

People don’t have little paper address books any more. The ones they do have are locked behind the unforgiving fortress of biometric security. So his family asked friends to reach out to more nth-degree-of-separation friends to let the know the dreadful news and details of the funeral.

I remember my parents making such phone calls when I was a kid. Always the same patter, “Are you sat down? I’m afraid I have some horrible news…”

But the enforced brevity of Twitter doesn’t really allow for such niceties, does it?

Sending an email seems… I don’t know… impersonal? But there’s a whole bunch of mutual friends who exist, for me, only as text on a screen. Do I call them? Do I BCC them? What emoji conveys the right amount of reverence for the situation?

How, in a little screen, do you mentally prepare someone for a shock? Is the subject line “Some terrible news about our friend” too much? Too little?

The Funeral

I would live-tweet a funeral, take selfies with the deceased

Tacky – “Weird Al” Yankovic

I mean, that’s crazy, right? But that’s how a bunch of us knew him – through social media.

Yes, selfies at a funeral are a thing – they’re a social object which has been the subject of much discussion. Some friends of mine advocate photographing the funeral in the same way you would any other significant occasion.

What’s the right balance? Checking in on FourSquare seems a little disrespectful, but is it OK to live-stream the ceremony on Periscope to those who can’t make it?

Preparing for the inevitable

Perhaps selfishly, my thoughts turned to my own mortality. I’ve got life assurance to take care of my family financially, and I have a Will to sort out any property issues – but what about my digital life?

Google has the euphemistically named “Inactive Account Manager“. I’ve set it so my family has access to my account should I die.

Facebook has a “Legacy Contact setting“.

A legacy contact is someone who you choose to manage your account after you pass away. They’ll be able to do things like pin a post on your Timeline, respond to new friend requests and update your profile picture. They won’t post as you or see your messages

My password manager has a sharing function which, if I set it correctly, should smooth access to some of my accounts.

And as for everything else…? Who knows. Do the half-a-dozen people who follow me on an obscure social network care that I’m gone? Will it be distressing for my relatives to receive reminder emails from them?

The aftermath

Every so often, someone – who hadn’t realised he’s gone – drops a note on his wall wishing him happy birthday. Or sends an @ message to a few of us. It’s not their fault, but it is hard not to feel a little pang of anger and then sadness.

The real pain is looking through the list of friends streaming by and wondering if I’m being good enough to them.

Is “Liking” a Tweet a substitute for a pint of a beer and a natter? Is scrawling “Happy birthday” in a WhatsApp message as good as ringing up for a chat?

And now?

If you’d like to donate to my friend’s memorial, there is a JustGiving campaign running (oh, look, another social network).

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK.

If you’re in pain or distress, you’re not alone. You can always find someone to talk to.

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