Logging out

What happens to our digital lives after we pass away?

by Brent Renneke
When you're a 19-year-old college student, class is optional, consequences are forgotten, and a good time is never more than a phone call away.

Regardless of the actions many attribute to immaturity, there will always be tomorrow and years after to reminisce about past transgressions over a beer.

For the friends of University of North Dakota student Michael Abernathey, a phone call on Oct. 7, 2008, was the unkind introduction of how we take those experiences of tomorrow for granted.

Abernathey's friends turned to Facebook to reminisce and say the things teenagers do not talk about in the real world, like how much their friendship means to them.

"I wish we could go back to the summer and hang out one more time in the apartment... that summer was great buddy. I will never forget it or you," one friend posted more than a year since Abernathey's passing.

"Thinking about how you would have been 21 today, and how we would have made an entrance no matter where we went," another wrote.

Since its early days, Facebook has allowed users to "memorialize" an account. For grieving friends and family, those still-active pages become a way to publicly pay their respects to a deceased loved one.

A memorialized Facebook profile is only viewable by the deceased's friends and the "Wall" is transformed into a soundboard for friends and family to pay their respects.

For the friends and family of Abernathey, it is a soundboard that has turned into an almost therapeutic opportunity for over 500 family and friends to talk to their brother, cousin, friend or son.

To memorialize an account, a friend or family member requests the account to become memorialized, and a proof of death, like an obituary or a news article, is required for verification, according to Facebook's website.

An arduous task

To delete an account, however, is a little more difficult. The person requesting the deletion is required to be an immediate family member, which needs to be proved with the deceased's birth certificate or a proof of authority under local law.

It is an unwanted and daunting task for immediate family members mourning the loss of their son, daughter or parent. Realizing this, a number of companies in the last few years have developed a process that eases this undertaking.

Companies like Legacy Locker work with people in securing their digital assets, like a Facebook profile, prior to death, so when the person does pass away, their login information is passed on to the named executor of their digital will, who then gains power over the account.

Jeremy Toeman, founder and CEO of Legacy Locker, said he created the business after enduring the painful circumstances of trying to gain access to his recently deceased grandmother's email, so he could notify her friends she died.

"It was not fun to sit there and try to hack into my grandma's email account when you are still mourning the loss," Toeman says. "Both emotionally and practically, we are trying to ease this situation."

Currently, Facebook has more than 500 million users, all of who will die. Whether it is a source of pain, comfort or both, the profiles of the deceased will forever be an issue as the world's digital identity grows.




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Brent Renneke
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