Grieving on Facebook

There is no good way to find out that someone you know has died. It’s now inevitable that social media will often play a role.

This is becoming more and more of a common occurrence; people find a status update that announces a relative’s death or an old friend’s Facebook wall full of comments of sympathy and remembrance. Using social networking sites may seem like a strange or inappropriate way to handle someone’s death, but it is not at all surprising. People share all kinds of life experiences on Facebook — travel plans, career moves, marriage, health issues, and so on — so it seems only natural in our Internet Age that death would also become another one of these commonly broadcasted life events.

Memorials are an ingrained part of the grieving process. Think of the makeshift memorials set up on roadsides and the public vigils that take place following tragedies. Social media is now occupying a similar role.

Facebook, ever eager to ingratiate itself in every nook and cranny of life, has the option to “memorialize” the Facebook page of a deceased person. Facebook created the memorial feature in 2009. As Max Kelly, then Facebook’s chief security officer, explained in a Facebook Blog post, “When someone leaves us, they don’t leave our memories or our social network. To reflect that reality, we created the idea of “memorialized” profiles as a place where people can save and share their memories of those who’ve passed.”

To memorialize a page, someone must fill out an online form that reports the deceased person to Facebook. The form requires providing proof of death (like a news article or obituary). Once a page is memorialized special privacy settings take effect: only confirmed friends can see the profile or find it through search; the deceased’s personal information like contact information and status updates are removed; and the memorialized account may not be logged onto by anyone in the future, but Facebook friends of the deceased can still comment on the memorialized page to share memories of the deceased and give and get support from others who knew the deceased.

Of course, there are mixed reactions to this feature. For some, being able to visit the deceased person’s Facebook page and seeing it full of commemorative comments is a helpful and convenient source of support and rememberance; for others, it is a sore reminder of what is gone forever and prolongs the mourning process. For many, it is just in general an unsettling and overly public way to deal with death and grieving.

Whether or not you personally are comfortable with or creeped out by the idea of Facebook as a virtual cemetery, it is clear that this is yet another indication of just how much our real lives and our social media lives have melded together. We live in a time when Facebook pages are becoming assets that need to be considered when writing a will.