When my father died four years ago, we wanted — as you would with your relatives — to honor him properly. We wanted to give him not only the sendoff he deserved, but also the sendoff he would have wanted, writes Kaila Colbin on MediaPost
Luckily for us, he made it easy. For one thing, he had an extraordinarily well-defined and public personality. It’s often hard to know what someone “would have wanted,” but my dad was so outsized that there was no room for doubt. Still, his great gift to us was his career: he was an actor — not a hugely famous one, but one who worked often enough for us to have a large library of footage from which to create a memorial movie.
As I edited it together, I remember thinking how blessed we were to have access to these archives of his life, given how uncommon they were for someone born in 1923. Later generations tended to keep more thorough records as personal cameras became more ubiquitous, but in the pre-digital age it still took much effort, dedication and many resources to chronicle our personal histories.
Again, my father was inclined to that kind of effort — we have dozens of albums from my childhood, our photographic youth meticulously organized and captioned — but lots of people, myself included, are not.
No matter. We are gently but steadily being funneled into it.
I was confronted with the extent of our personal digital histories the other day when I was trying to remember both the exact words and who had said one of my favorite quotes. I couldn’t find it on Google, but I knew I had posted it to Facebook, and so I spent a few minutes trawling through old activity to find it. And as I scrolled down, I saw the pieces of myself I chose to record over the past year. I saw how I chose to portray myself to my friends and the interactions we had through that medium. I saw photos, and commentary, and connection: the chronology of my life that I would never have bothered to do myself.
Suddenly, I realized the beauty of our collective presence on social media. Thanks to our shift in media habits, even non-scrapbookers like me are likely to end up with a record of who we were and who we have become. And when someone passes away, as a close friend did nearly a year ago, we can look back on these records and bring the presence of our loved ones back into our lives.
But death also brings up issues that are new to the digital age, and as yet unresolved. Do you unfriend someone once they’ve passed on? Do you leave that person’s profile available for certain relationships, like “brother” or “widow”? Should a company like Facebook be responsible for maintaining the digital archive of a life, and, perhaps more importantly, do you trust them to do so?
Facebook’s current policy for deceased members is to memorialize the account, taking out of public search and friend suggest options. Unfortunately, if you read the comments left on that Facebook blog, it seems that memorializing an account also removes the posts made by the deceased, a tragic — and apparently irreversible — thing if you want to use that profile as a way of rekindling your memories of a loved one.
So here we are: blessed with richly recorded personal histories, but running the risk that they are stored with a company whose purpose is not to honor the dead but to serve the living. I can’t imagine these issues were contemplated by a college-age Mark Zuckerberg, but they should be now. In an era where Facebook has become the dominant repository of our lives, we need to be clearer about our options to engage with it in death.
This is obviously a highly personal topic, and everyone handles death and grieving differently. How do you think Facebook should deal with the accounts of the deceased?