When a message to a deceased person recently popped up on my Facebook wall, my immediate reaction was to ‘unfriend’ this individual as I have done with deceased acquaintances before.
But somehow, this time it was different. This person was not just someone I had met in cyberspace. Many years ago, we worked for the same newspaper. It felt disrespectful to ‘unfriend’ her.
Of course, in true Facebook fashion, this issue was immediately put as a status question – to unfriend or not to unfriend those who have left us?
Many friends and acquaintances responded, urging me to keep this person as a ‘friend’.
“Once a person has departed, it does not mean they are no longer with us,” said one. “Seeing photographs and messages helps one to remember,” said another.
I decided to delve deeper.
Joanci Noble Wright, a designer from Johannesburg, says friends and family of her deceased husband post messages on his wall on anniversaries and birthdays. “They address him directly, as if there is some kind of Wi-Fi connection with the other side.”
She finds that the messages help her maintain contact with friends. “We tend to let relationships slide. But when we post messages we ‘see’ each other and can reconnect.”
When a lifelong friend died about two years ago, Elmarie Ward, a caterer, found solace in visiting her friend’s wall. “In life she was my voice of reason. When I was beyond anger, she would drag me back to calm. When I miss her or am battling with an issue, I find I become composed when I ‘visit’ her on Facebook.”
Publisher (SUN MeDIA) Justa Du Plessis Niemand regularly visits the Facebook pages of both her deceased sister and a friend who was “my brother, mentor and colleague.”
“There is no way I will even contemplate deleting them from my Facebook or any contact lists. It might be eerie for some, but I believe we still remain connected.”
Does this kind of remembering serve a purpose?
“Yes,” says Dr Desmond Painter, lecturer in Social Psychology at Stellenbosch University. “We all have a need to remember those we have lost. The word ‘re-membering’ is quite apt because it affirms that a loved one was very much part of us.”
He explains, “The in memoriam practice is often no longer ritualised in our society. People disappear and that is that. We do not, like the Mexicans, have a Day of the Dead where everybody prays and remembers the deceased. And for the most part we do not visit graves.”
Some communities prefer having the bodies of the deceased cremated. This can be driven by economic considerations, cultural and religious reasons and even pragmatism. The family know they will seldom visit the grave and find buying a plot and headstone an unnecessary expense. In some cases loved ones are buried in a far-away country, making it difficult to regularly bring flowers to the grave.
“Facebook offers a new space and opportunity to remember. In a way it has become a public cemetery,” says Painter.
However, some people find it macabre seeing photographs of or ‘messages’ by the deceased, posted by family who have access to the account, pop up on their Facebook walls.
“It is actually quite healthy to have this method of remembering,” says Painter. “What is unhealthy is a complete absence of spaces where the deceased can feature and maintain a symbolic presence.”
Using Facebook to remember is not straightforward, though. Many people do not know that the service has strict policies pertaining to accounts of the deceased. Family are supposed to inform Facebook of a death. The account will then either be removed, or if a valid request is received, it will be memorialised.
The service says it tries to “prevent references to memorialised accounts from appearing on Facebook in ways that may be upsetting to the person’s friends and family, and we also take measures to protect the privacy of the deceased person by securing the account”.
According to Sally Aldous, a member of an extended global team of people dealing with communication queries pertaining to Facebook, this means that “accounts don’t appear in public spaces, nor do you get birthday reminders or friend suggestions”.
She adds, “Memorialising an account will not give you access to someone’s messages. When we memorialise an account we keep the person’s timeline on Facebook but limit access to some features to protect the person’s privacy. A person’s friend network can still leave comments and photos on their timeline. But nobody may log in or edit the account.”
However, judging from the number of ‘live’ updates Facebook users still receive from deceased people, it is clear that many families cannot bear to inform Facebook of death and risk losing access to accounts.
What if you need access to a deceased loved one’s account but do not have the password? It can be done, but not easily.
According to Facebook policy, the privacy of the account holder is protected. “We are only able to consider requests for account contents of a deceased person from an authorised representative. The application to obtain account content is a lengthy process and will require you to obtain a court order.”
This means that family and heirs could face a lengthy court processes to access information they feel might help them deal with the loss. In case of suicide, families might, for example, want to scour private messages for clues.
Some Facebook users have made provision for untimely death.
“I have hidden a note with usernames and passwords for all my social media and other online accounts. My family members know where to find this should I die,” says an acquaintance.
This might just be something more of us should consider. After all, social media analysts have already started asking how soon the day will come when Facebook has more profiles of deceased people than living ones.
- More information of what to do in case of death can be found by clicking here.
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