What Happens When Someone Dies on Facebook?

This is a post that I originally published on my old personal, technology blog back in November 2009:

An old friend died last week.  The circumstances of his death are still not clear: he was in good health, lived alone, and was getting ready to celebrate his 35th birthday that same week.  We hadn’t really hung out in a few years, having gone our separate ways in life, but we’d see each other on Facebook, trade a chat every now and then, and keep generally informed of each others’ life milestones.  When my father told me the terrible news I was shocked; wanting to get a sense of what was happening in his life prior to his death I went to his Facebook page.

His November updates all seemed positive.  My friend had been a survivor of childhood cancer and possessed a courage that I always admired him for.  On November 10th he posted the status update: “22 years ago this Nov. was my last chemo-therapy treatment.  I have been Cancer free since then; Life is good ♥.”  Prior to that, in response to someone asking him how things were going he said, “Life is good – Had a great day so far and it’s not over yet- ♥ this life.”  The final update he posted, just 6-days before his birthday on November 14th, went as follows: “Going to be having a Tattoo party soon at my home.  My two friends are going to come here and Ink people if you want to get something let me know asap and we will work something out.  These are the people that have worked on me so to see their work look at my photos :-)”.  That was the last Facebook update he ever made.  Police found him in his apartment on November 21st.  The unofficial report, through the grapevine of concerned friends, said that he had been dead for at least four to five days before being found, they did not know the cause of death, and an investigation would be conducted.

Looking at his Facebook page now is a surreal experience.  On his birthday he was already dead.  No one knew that fact until the next day.  Earlier in the week, on his Wall, there was a string of posts wishing him happy birthday, (I remember getting similar birthday posts from “friends” on Facebook, some of whom I hadn’t seen or spoke to in years, wishing me well – part of Facebook etiquette, I guess).  After about 20 or so birthday wishes, the RIP messages began, many more than the birthday wishes.

People posted quick messages like, “RIP brother, you will be missed,” multimedia messages with links to YouTube videos of Pearl Jam’s “Black” or other appropriate songs he would have liked, and some more personal notes, (I have yet to post my note).  What strikes me about this aspect of the tragedy is how we as people are finding new ways to grieve, digitally.  The Facebook Wall has become the virtual wake, if you will, where those of us not local enough or not close enough to be there in person can express our sadness and love to the departed.

When a user dies on Facebook, that persons profile can become “memorialized” by notifying Facebook about the user’s death.  Here is what Facebook says about a memorialized profile:

When a user passes away, we memorialize their account to protect their privacy. Memorializing an account removes certain sensitive information (e.g., status updates and contact information) and sets privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. The Wall remains so that friends and family can leave posts in remembrance. Memorializing an account also prevents all login access to it.

The process for reporting a death to Facebook is as follows:

Please report this information here so that we can memorialize this person’s account. Memorializing the account removes certain more sensitive information like status updates and restricts profile access to confirmed friends only. Please note that in order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone. We do honor requests from close family members to close the account completely.

These mechanisms are in place to preserve the integrity of the person’s profile and provide the emotional outlet for friends and family.  Someone must have worked with Facebook to clean up my friend’s account b/c many of the birthday messages are now gone.  I’m kind of glad.  It was unsettling to see that string of messages knowing they were posted after the fact.  I’m also glad that I can now go leave my parting words for my friend in the hope that perhaps they’ll bring a little comfort, comfort to those looking at his profile, family, friends, whoever.  Also, I hope this blog post serves as a source of information about handling a death on Facebook and a tribute to my friend.  His legacy of courage and love of life will always live on through those who knew him.

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