What Happens When People Die, but Their Profiles Live On?

Readers share their most intense postmortem social media moments.

698059504

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by gn8/iStock, Facebook.

In the internet age, it often seems that what is digital may never die. Even when our loved ones slip their mortal coil, their social media profiles soldier on. Though Facebook, Google, and other companies have developed protocols for shutting down the accounts of the dead, many if not most of us are still caught off guard.

When my grandfather died, for example, “he” continued to contact me through his LinkedIn profile. In the days and weeks after his funeral, I got emails like, “[Your dead grandfather] wants to connect with you on LinkedIn!” and “[Your dead grandfather] congratulated you on your promotion!” Eventually, my grandmother admitted to using his account. She ultimately agreed to shut it down. I was in turn mortified, nauseated, and eventually resigned myself to mild amusement.

I am, of course, hardly the only one to have experienced moments like this. On Dec. 6, Future Tense, a collaboration between Slate, Arizona State University, and New America, will be hosting a happy hour event on planning your digital afterlife in Washington. (To RSVP, visit the New America website.) In preparation for the slightly macabre festivities, we asked readers to submit their own personal stories at the intersection of tech and death. The stories below, which have been edited and condensed for clarity, reflect the wide range of interactions between the living and the dead but digitally preserved.

Readers told us, of course, about a plethora of strange postmortem interactions. Some were, like my grandfather’s LinkedIn page, the result of interference from friends or family:

In 2010, my friend Roger passed away suddenly. I was still processing his death the following day when suddenly I had a new message alert on Yahoo Instant Messenger.  It went as follows:
 
Roger: “Erik?”
 
Roger: “Are you there?”
 
It took me about two minutes to get my head right on this. I replied:
 
Erik: “Who is this????”
 
Roger: “It’s Pat. I don’t have your number and I’m at Roger’s place with his mom. I saw you were online.”
 
Erik: “Pat. I’ll call you in a little while.”
 
Needless to say, it freaked me out.

—Erik, 44, Cincinnati

Other spooky encounters were the result of automated processes:

A college friend died in 2009, in his early 30s. Either a family member or some kind of ghostly automaton continued to play Farmville with his account for years afterward. I eventually blocked my dead friend.

—Josh, 43, Los Angeles

My dad had a blog in which he was posting an ongoing story about his battle with prostate cancer. He posted a new installment the morning of Feb. 17, 2016. I found out the next day that he had died the evening of Feb. 16. I guess he had his installments set to auto-upload. Creepy.

—Laura, 47, Raymond, Washington

I worked at a company for a few years and remained good friends with a lot of people from there. Then my husband got a job there after I left. When Facebook took off, that meant that I was bombarded with updates from people at that company through friends and friends of friends. I got a shock when a co-worker whom I did not know well killed himself and I found out through all the memorial notes left on his Facebook page.

I got a bigger shock a few months later when I was on Scruff, a gay hook-up app, using their matching feature. His picture came up. Of course Scruff had no way of knowing he was dead, but it really was a jarring moment.

—Anonymous, 38, Seattle

At least one story grappled with the notion that some digital records are better left unopened:

My brother died from cancer. He lived on the third floor in an apartment building. I believe he was in distress for some period before he died—he was in bed in the middle of the night and had thrown a glass against the wall, shattering it, and had thrown other items that were near his bed around the room. I believe he was trying to get the attention of someone to help him.

When I finally got the courage to look through his Gmail a month after he passed, I found an email from his building manager, sent the morning after he died. The neighbor below had apparently recorded the noise coming from my brother’s apartment and filed a noise complaint. The manager included the two-hour video in the email—I did not click on the video.

I talked to the manager about this when I was cleaning out his apartment and he felt absolutely terrible and had hoped that I hadn’t seen the email.

—Anonymous, 52, Washington state

And readers also shared moments that made them wonder if the internet has pushed us further apart than we’ve ever been—or actually brought us closer:

A woman I went to grad school with passed away after a battle with cancer. She didn’t seem to have any close family. I didn’t know her well. We were the kind of Facebook friends who hadn’t spoken or seen each other in a decade.

The year after her death, several people who clearly did not know she was dead wished her not-a-memorial-Facebook account a happy birthday, which made my head and heart hurt, so I found her obituary and sent it to Facebook and had her account turned into a memorial. I still wonder how she’d feel if she knew it was a random girl from an English lit class who memorialized her account.

—Michele, 31, Chicago

Every year at the holidays for about 10 years, I would exchange a quick message with an ex with whom I had maintained a Facebook-only, occasional friendship. For two years in a row, my messages went unanswered. I assumed he was no longer interested in maintaining the relationship, so I was thinking I would skip it this year. I recently got a message from his mother telling me that he killed himself two years ago and it took her this long to figure out how to access his Facebook account, so she was just catching up on letting all his ex-girlfriends know. That comment would have been funny if the situation weren’t so tragic. She went on to ask me to continue to send him the messages because it would bring her comfort.

I’m struggling with the idea that I was messaging a dead person for two years and that it didn’t occur to me that something might be wrong. And I don’t know if I can bring myself to continue the messages, at least not in the long term. In an analog world, would I continue to send a Christmas card every year to a deceased person?

—Leslie, 39, Madison, Wisconsin

Each of these stories has timeless components; death and grieving have never been simple. But they are also uniquely modern, revealing what it means to be the first generation of humans grappling with death in the digital era. While we’ll never perfect our coping mechanisms—online or off—it’s clear the conversation about how we deal with the digital afterlife needs to continue. Unless the Grim Reaper suddenly stops or the rate of change in Silicon Valley drastically slows, our postmortem conundrums are likely only to grow.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.