My Last Will, Testament and Profile Picture
“My relationship with death remains the same,” Woody Allen said a few years ago. “I’m strongly against it.” One of the few comforts in dying—if there are truly any—is that when you finally pass away everyone else has to deal with it. Others have to mourn and feel desolate while you just rot in the ground. Beforehand, however, the uncomfortable pressure lies on you to decide what you wish of your body and belongings. You need to ask yourself things like: which child do you prefer the most to bequeath all your stuff to? Should you be buried or cremated? What kind of urn should hold your ashes? What will you wear in your coffin? These are not easy questions to ask (and, I’ve learned from experience, not good on first dates either). You can take solace, though, in knowing that these are questions that humanity has been asking since the first hunter-gatherer couldn’t get up one morning and no amount of yelling or kicking could make him budge. But unlike previous eras, when we die now we leave behind more than a body and possessions, we leave also a whole nebulous combination of social media profiles and email accounts as well. As more Facebook users die out, questions of what to do with one’s digital remains become ever more pressing.
The practical concerns surrounding one’s death typically involve questions of what to do with your body and what to do with your stuff. Yet strangely, a Facebook account seems to lie in a grey area between being a person’s owned property (like a couch) while also being apart of their very personhood (like their arm or their foot). This makes questions of what to do with a user’s account post-death very tricky. It gets even more complicated and weird when you consider that Facebook thinks your account is theirs.
Up until quite recently, Facebook only allowed two options following a user’s death: memorialization or deletion of the account. Memorialization removes a Facebook profile from coming up in public feeds, searches, or birthday notifications; becoming, in effect, digital shrines for friends and family members to mourn and wish their deceased loved ones farewell. This is not without its problems. What if you unexpectedly die in a freak gasoline fight accident and your profile picture is that of you in a Kangaroo onesie getting smashed off your face? Someone needs to digitally embalm your ass. Hence Facebook has introduced the “legacy contact.”
A legacy contact is a person who can manage one’s account after death. They can post an obituary, add new friends or family members, and change your profile picture to something more appropriate. (So when I pass away, for instance, change my profile pic to when I was eighteen and handsome. It’s not false advertising, I’m dead.)
With memorialization and the legacy contact, it seems that Facebook wants users to keep their accounts open forever; almost as if they are trying to ignore the very notion of death itself. Could dying be just another one of those awkward real life pains that Facebook wishes to subdue and wash over? Life according to Facebook is one of job promotions, wedding proposals, and selfies. In fact, the only real death in the eyes of Facebook is to de-activate your account, which we all know is the ultimate form of social suicide, typically met with scorn, shame, and exclusion. Just as there is no “unlike” button on Facebook, neither is there any hint of death.
But perhaps there is good reason for Facebook’s hesitancy to allow family members access to deceased users’ accounts. While one’s physical body may be embalmed, put into a nice suit or coffin, the idea of having someone else enter your Facebook account—even when dead—feels much more invasive. Your private messages to hot girls from school, your gossip from the office and your irrationally violent thoughts on the vegan diet might all still be there, flickering like a portal into your mind, behind the scenes of your profile. You don’t want people to learn new things about you when you die, you want to be remembered as you were. Letting people run your Facebook is too close for comfort, as if you’re letting someone wear your own skin or giving them control of your own ghost. Perhaps Facebook is protecting us from a form of modern day necromancy. Maybe.
But if you don’t buy that point above and you still really want full control over your Facebook account after death, the best thing to do is leave your password and instructions with a trusted individual. Of course, this is breaking the Terms and Policy Agreement that you signed up for when you first opened your account. But what are they going to do? Dig up your cold dead body and arrest you? But, full warning, as history has shown time and time again, deathbed instructions tend to get buried faster than dead bodies. So make sure you leave your instructions with someone you really, really trust!
Or if that all seems like too much trouble, you can always just delete your Facebook account now. But then, why rush to your own demise?