These days, the decisions that must be made after the death of a loved one don’t end at the arrangement conference. Even after the final disposition has occurred, one important consideration remains: how to handle the sizable digital footprints that many of us leave online.

It’s no small issue. Consider that there are currently over 1.5 billion active Facebook users, a whopping 23% increase over March 2012. Of these 1.5 billion people, roughly 699 million log in to Facebook daily and spend an average of 20 minutes on the site per visit. Whether or not you agree with the increasingly important role social media sites are playing in our lives, you can’t ignore the fact that the deceased may have had as rich an online life as an offline one.

So, in the wake of a death, what happens to a person’s Facebook account? Currently, there are two common alternatives: the family can either leave the account as-is or request that Facebook turn the account into a memorial page (apart from requesting that the account be closed altogether).

Neither solution is truly ideal. If the account is left active, the profile will continue to appear in the network’s lists of birthday notifications and friend suggestions. If no friends or relatives have access to the account’s login information, there’s also no way to manage the messages that are left on the deceased’s Facebook Wall, as Facebook does not give out login credentials or transfer account ownership under any circumstances.

The case of Amanda Todd demonstrates how devastating this can be. On October 10th, 2012, the tenth-grader took her life after being bullied both online and offline over a period of several years. Though her Facebook Wall initially served as a hub for friends and family members to share condolences, the same people who drove her to her death eventually took it over – filling the pages with messages like “Yes we are glad that she is dead yay,” and “She brought it on herself which is why I don’t feel bad,” and resulting in a truly heartbreaking situation for her family.

The alternative of switching an active account to one of Facebook’s memorial pages has its own weaknesses. Once the change has been made, the account is essentially frozen. Nobody – not even those with the appropriate login credentials – will be able to log in to the account, and only those who previously had permission to do so will be able to leave condolence messages on the remaining Wall. It’s also worth considering that any racy pictures or status updates that were left on the deceased’s account will be preserved as part of his or her online legacy.
On a deeper level, the practice of leaving condolence messages on sites like Facebook raises some concerns among counselors and grief experts. Some worry that the ability to interact with the dead through their online presence delays the recognition of death as a finality. After all, if we’re able to continue interacting with the deceased online, what is there that will encourage us to move on and begin to integrate the death into our lives in a healthy way?

Those who work with the bereaved also see the ability to leave online condolences as a “cop out” that prevents the exchange of more meaningful messages. Facebook messages are seen by some as being more impersonal than calls, visits or handwritten notes, and as a result, may be less useful in terms of their ability to provide support to the family in their time of sorrow.

Is there an answer to the question of how to best integrate somebody’s digital death with their physical one? Unfortunately, not yet. According to Jay Brubaker, a scholar in the new field of digital identity at the University of California-Irvine, “There aren’t really any norms around death and social media yet. People are kind of making it up as they go along.”

In this world of uncertainty, families may turn to you for guidance on how to handle the deceased’s digital legacy management. The following recommendations should help you to handle these requests in the most comforting way possible:
Let your customers know about online memorial walls.
Online memorial walls represent a much better alternative to Facebook in terms of online grieving. The best online memorial walls emulate the feel of Facebook’s interface, giving friends and loved ones a place to share messages, pictures, videos and meaningful icons.

However, online memorial walls tend to come with one important feature compared to Facebook – the ability to flag inappropriate messages and delete them before they’re published to the live site. This can be done in a number of different ways, including “swear word filters” that automatically flag pending comments containing profanity, and required manual picture and video review, which allow site owners to ensure that nothing inappropriate slips through the cracks.

Familiarize yourself with your state’s digital asset access laws.
The question of who can access your digital accounts after death is difficult to answer, as state regulations vary tremendously – and some states have no codified access laws at all. For example, Rhode Island and Connecticut’s estate laws cover email only, while Indiana’s covers vaguely-defined “documents” and “information.” Idaho and Oklahoma’s laws are less stringent, offering the estate managers of the deceased the ability to access account information on everything from microblogging to social networking sites.
To make matters more confusing, ongoing litigation between individuals and companies like Google and Facebook has the potential to change access laws at any given moment. Take the example of Helen and Jay Stassen, a Wisconsin couple who served both companies with court orders after they were denied access to their son’s accounts following his suicide. Google gave up email access quickly, but Facebook dragged the resolution process out for months – leaving those in similar positions as the Stassens without clear guidance on how to proceed in the future.

With all of this confusion in mind, the best answer you can give your families to the question of accessing existing accounts may be, “I don’t know.” But by familiarizing yourself with any laws that do exist in your area – as well as with any ongoing legal challenges that may affect these statutes – you can give customers a more straightforward, accurate response than they’ll find digging around on their own online.

Get to know digital legacy management programs.
To address the question of who should have access to your information when you die, several digital legacy management – like those offered by My Wonderful Life and SecureSafe Digital Inheritance – have sprung up to give internet users a way to plan for their eventual demise. You may encounter these tools as you gather information and make arrangements for your families, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the purpose they serve and how they operate.

In addition, getting to know these programs could inform any information pieces or community involvement events you offer in the future. As an example, if your funeral home conducts training sessions on how to make preneed arrangements, discussing the role of digital legacy management programs and providing recommendations on individual tools could add considerable value to attendees and help to position your business as a knowledgeable, up-to-date company that understands the needs of today’s consumers.

By and large, digital legacy management is still the “Wild West” of the deathcare world. In fact, it may be many more years before a consistent set of recommendations and laws designed to handle the challenge of confronting death and its ramifications online are established.

But in the meantime, it’s easy to recognize the truth behind another quote from Jed Brubaker: “What’s known is that this Facebook generation will have more experiences with death than any generation before it.” Make it a priority to continually educate yourself on these changing traditions, as the issue of digital legacy management is almost certainly something you’ll encounter in the years to come. FBA


Matt Frazer Headshot PhotoMatt Frazer is the owner of Frazer Consultants, a personalization, technology and consulting company for the death care profession.  Founded in 2003, Frazer Consultants’s top product lines include the all-in-one Tribute Center personalization suite, the Life Journey stationery collection, funeral home website design and the new revenue-generating Tribute Store plugin.  Matt can be reached at 866.372.9372, by email at [email protected] or by visiting