Years ago, I went to camp with a girl named Olivia. She was everyone’s friend, or at least seemed that way, and everyone envied her charm. She was the type that could sneak out one weekend to a concert in Boston, get caught in a storm and come back soaking wet and escape the whole episode without getting in trouble.
A few weeks ago, I came across Olivia’s Facebook profile for the first time in over a year. Olivia and I hadn’t been particularly close and hadn’t felt any obligation to keep in touch after camp ended. But, when I came across her profile, the words “Remembering Olivia” occupied the space where just her name should have been, and I had the chilling feeling of encountering a ghost. After all, Olivia had passed away a year earlier from leukemia.
I hesitated to explore any further, as it felt like disturbing a grave. But I read on. The page had become a memorial, a testament to Olivia’s life. Friends still regularly posted photos and messages to her, often saying how much they missed her and reminding her of the empty space she’d left behind. Others wrote messages that didn’t mention her death — her best friend had posted a link to Taylor Swift’s newest music video, and another left regular updates about college life.
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After coming across Olivia’s Facebook, I began thinking: What will happen to my Facebook after I die? Or my email accounts, or all the texts and photos on my phone? It’s strange to think of those things as a type of property, something that becomes owner-less at one’s death. We live in the digital age; what happens in the digital afterlife?
With that question in mind, I began doing some research online and discovered a whole range of services offering to help plan your digital afterlife. Google allows you to determine what will happen to your emails when your account becomes inactive, while Yahoo even has a service that allows users to pre-write emails to be sent once the company is notified of their death.
I was more than a little disturbed by this morbid side of the digital age, using technology to extend a person’s existence beyond the limits of mortal life.
But there are other ways to manage one’s post-mortem online presence. In February, Facebook announced a new policy allowing users to designate a “legacy contact.” This person would be able to write one last post on your timeline, respond to friend requests and change your profile picture and cover photo.
To me, this seemed much more natural than sending emails from beyond the grave. Rather than mimicking the person’s presence, this policy allows his or her death to be acknowledged, with the word “Remembering” added before his or her name. Facebook’s inherently social nature provides the perfect forum for people to communally mourn a friend or loved one while celebrating that person’s life, immortalized in a Facebook profile.
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When I found out about Olivia’s death, I cried.
The tears startled me, because I’m not an emotional person. I don’t know if I even cried when members of my extended family passed away. I tried to figure out why I was so affected. Maybe it was her youth, the tragedy of a life taken too early. Maybe it was the shock of knowing that even my peers were not excused from mortality.
But I think I took her death hard because I had, in some ways, watched it approach. Facebook had provided a window for me and 800 other Facebook friends to watch Olivia battle her illness.
Although she rarely posted about it herself, Olivia’s sickness was reflected in her profile. In the early days of her diagnosis, during her senior year of high school, her page was flooded with encouragement and support. And for the rest of that year, her life was documented on Facebook with the same nostalgia of any other high school senior. But her illness marked every moment: She received her college acceptance letter while in a hospital bed, and her graduation cap sat upon a head that had lost its hair to chemotherapy.
Through Facebook, we watched Olivia’s life from afar, never personally involved in events so distant that they seemed unreal. But it’s hard to distance yourself from death, so unequivocally absolute that it feels real no matter how far away it is.
On the day Olivia passed away, hundreds of people left messages on her timeline. Friends and relatives posted, as expected, but most people left messages that began, “I didn’t know Olivia well…”
I didn’t leave a message. Maybe that was out of self-consciousness, but I just didn’t feel that I had earned the right to publicly mourn her. Instead, I dug out an old memory card that held our photos from camp, and privately mourned a life lost.