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How 1 Billion people are coping with death and Facebook

“I think i’m going to go online,” said cheryl, logging in to Facebook from her hospital bed. She soon reconsidered, how- ever. “I don’t know what to write: ‘Hey I almost died last night. What’s up with you guys?’” Months later, Cheryl died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her partner Kelli Dunham still cherishes funny memories like this one. “she was kind of a smart ass,” Dunham tells Mashable.

The two represent a phenomenon occurring the world over: Facebook after death. Couples, families, colleagues and friends are not only coping with losing loved ones, but also interacting with the Facebook profiles they leave behind.

The situation surfaces a multitude of questions and concerns. What happens to a Facebook profile after death? How do people interact with a dead user? Should loved ones be able to access a dead user’s profile at all? What is acceptable online grieving etiquette? And finally, what has grief become in the age of social media?

As of 2012, 30 million people who maintained Facebook accounts have died, according to a report by The Huffington Post. Some studies approximate that nearly 3 million users have died in 2012 alone; 580,000 in the U.S.

What Happens after we die?

So what happens to all those suddenly abandoned profiles? Their fate could go one of four ways:

  • The profile remains untouched, un accessed, unreported and therefore open to everyday wall posts, photo tags, status mentions and Facebook ads. in other words,
    business as usual.
  • A family member or close friend may choose to report a
    death to Facebook. Upon receipt of proof of death, such as a death certificate or local obituary, Facebook will switch the dead user’s timeline to a “memorial page.”
  • A close family member may petition Facebook to deactivate a dead user’s account.
  • Users may gain access to a dead user’s profile in one of two ways: either through knowledge of the dead user’s password, a practice against Facebook’s terms of service, or through a court subpoena. However, per Facebook’s privacy policy and strict state law, courts rarely grant outside access to said social data. more on that later.

Facebook’s official policy for handling user deaths is the memorial page. In 2009, the social network began switch- ing dead users’ profiles to memorial statuses, should the de- ceased user’s friends or family request the change.

Those friends may interact with the memorial page similarly as they would an active profile. They can post condolences and share memories on his or her timeline; they can view pictures and interact with past posts.

However, Facebook removes a host of other capabilities from memorialized pages. For instance, the profile is no longer accessible via public search, available only to existing Face- book friends. The page will not appear within Facebook “Suggestions.” in other words, the algorithm won’t suggest that you “reconnect with” a dead user whose page has been memorialized. Users won’t be able to tag a memorialized Facebook user in future posts or photos, or message that person at all. All automated app activity (e.g., Daily Horoscope) associated with a memorialized Facebook page ceases. Finally, Facebook reserves the right to delete status updates of a sensitive nature. for instance, if a user who committed suicide posted a photo of a gun to his head, Facebook would likely deem the content inappropriate and remove.

“Memorialization allows friends and family to post remembrances and honor a deceased user’s memory, while protecting the account and respecting the privacy of the deceased,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes tells Mash- able. “Also, we do honor requests from close family members to deactivate the account, which removes the profile and associated information from the site.”
interfacing with the dead, but most users don’t raise a Facebook flag at all, choosing instead to peruse and interact with a person’s regular Facebook presence even after his or her demise. And they have all kinds of reasons to keep it that way.

Scott Millin lost his 45-year-old sister Nanci to breast cancer in december 2011. As her caregiver and estate trustee, Millin made practical arrangements before, during and after her death.
“my job was now to dismantle and disperse what was remaining from Nanci’s life,” says Millin. “Canceling her phone service, credit cards, trash service and email account were logical conclusions and decisions… the one thing i struggled what to do with [was] her Facebook page.”

he not only saw Nanci’s timeline as a testament to her accomplishments and memories, but as a curated tome of experiences she had chosen to share from her otherwise private life.
“I think Nanci’s Facebook page is a virtual cemetery of sorts for me, as well as for her friends and family,” he says. “only we don’t have to navigate winding roads and marble headstones to get there. in- stead, we just click from any device and see her, remember her, leave messages, and smile or cry at what was and what has become.
for many, Facebook has become a highly accessible (even mobile) vehicle for grieving and, ultimately, catharsis.
Kristen Brown met well-respected musician Damien “Khamelien” Rahim through mutual friend Chris Kirkpatrick. Over the years, Brown and Rahim became close; the latter even wrote and produced the theme song for her nine- year-old son’s youtube storyboard.

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