News Column

When People Die Their Facebook Profile Lives On

March 11, 2013

Ed Stannard, New Haven Register, Conn.

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Facebook, Twitter, Email, Linkedin -- they help us keep connected, informed, entertained, sometimes annoyed.

Even after we're dead.

Our Facebook pages and LinkedIn accounts have become chronicles of our lives. For many, they become memorials after our deaths. But there are sticky legal issues too.

"I comment on their pages, it's nice to see other people share memories of the person as well, it helps me cope."

-- Petra Conen

Conen was one of many people who responded to a request on Facebook and Twitter to give their thoughts about deceased friends' Facebook pages. Most like being able to check in on the page of a friend who had died, although a few found it upsetting.

"I'm on the fence. I like looking to remember; dislike ads telling me I should add an app b/c my dead cousin uses it."

-- Christina Gullickson @CGullTweets

It's not just a sentimental issue, however. Social media companies have different policies about what they'll allow family members to do with their loved ones' accounts. The most detailed is probably Facebook's, which will "memorialize" a page at a relative's request.

It's a change from the company's previous policy of deleting the accounts.

"Facebook, and all online providers, have the difficult task of responding appropriately to information requests from grieving families while protecting users' privacy and complying with a myriad of state and federal laws," said Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman, in an email.

"In dealing with each case, Facebook strives to achieve this balance as respectfully and compassionately as possible.

"As part of that effort, Facebook developed a memorialization process to ensure family and friends have continued access to the profile of their loved-ones; including access to photos, videos, and wall posts. This process creates a special place where the departed's friends and family can continue to stay connected and share information."

When a page is memorialized, only friends of the deceased can leave posts. It is not visible in a search. However, Facebook will not give out the user name or password, so friends can't see private messages.

"In many ways it mirrors a remembrance book you might see at a wake or funeral," said Lon Seidman on Facebook.

"It is nice to help keep the spirit of a friend or loved one alive through Facebook! U can visit their page and put a smile on your face with the touch of a button!"

-- Jennifer Sage

Facebook and other social media sites also will delete an account on request, usually requiring an obituary or death certificate as proof. Google allows loved ones to request access to Gmail accounts, but makes no promises. "Any decision to provide the contents of a deceased person's email will be made only after a careful review," explains Google's website.

"I unfriended someone who has died and occasionally FB will list him in the 'people you may know' list. It's sad."

-- Barbara Cameron Caum

Several states, including Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and New Jersey, are considering legislation to allow relatives to decide whether their loved ones' accounts should be deleted. Connecticut is one of only five states with laws on the books dealing with the issue, but Connecticut's statute only addresses email.

"An electronic mail service provider shall provide, to the executor or administrator of the estate of a deceased person ... access to or copies of the contents of the electronic mail account of such deceased person," states the law in part. A written request by the executor and an order from the probate court are required.

State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said it's possible that the law would apply to social media such as Facebook, but the issue is unclear. "I think we're going to ask our legislative counsel to look at it and see if 'email accounts' is broad enough or whether we need to further specify," Looney said.

In New Hampshire, a legislator was moved to propose a law giving families access to deceased relatives' social media accounts after a girl committed suicide because of cyber-bullying and comments continued to be posted on her Facebook page.

"The taunting continued," state Rep. Peter Sullivan told the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H. "They taunted her, her family and her friends after she died."

"Before my husband's aunt passed away ... one of her sons worked it out with her in advance to keep her FB page 'alive.' Every November 30th her FB friends are reminded of her birthday, and many post their wishes for the happiness and love we hope she is experiencing on 'the other side.' ... It brings comfort and connection to her sons and their wives, and keeps the rest of us connected to one another, through her."

-- Ellen Freiler

Grief counselors said that whether keeping a social media page up helps the family depends on the family and what is on the page.

"Some of the survivors may see that as a lasting legacy of who the person was," especially if it features positive posts, said Marcel Slowly, a therapist from Milford. "Others may see it as a lasting reminder that the person's not here and that may intensify their grief. So it's not an easy question to answer."

Henry Goldstein of Cheshire, a psychologist specializing in grief issues, agreed. While "it could be nice for the families to go to," the relatives may also find out that their loved one was "doing things that maybe embarrassed the family."

Neither counselor has had the issue come up with their clients, they said.

"I am still friends with four Facebook friends that have died. In my experience, the pages become a public memorial place for people to share stories, photos, prayers, requests and thoughts. Two of my friends chronicled (in some ways) their own deaths on their pages. The other two were unexpected deaths. I won't unfriend them. It's like severing the last ties and it's too painful."



Source: (c)2013 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.