I see dead people. On Facebook.

Erika Doss’s work on memorialisation is an interesting foray into how western societies consider death. We are used to seeing memorials offline, from crosses at the sides of roads through to war memorials, and everything in between. We even see memorialisation happening online. But do we carry the human values of our offline existence online? Do our values look the same online as they do offline? And can we solve some of our society’s problems in dealing with death through the integration of memorials in technological spaces?

Pic: Flickr, Bennylin0724.

If we are, as Doss says, a “death-denying society” – one in which we’ve managed to ensure people die in locations we are ready to accept it occurs (66% of people die in hospitals, hospices or the like), then our obsession with social media might give us an opportunity to forge a better relationship with the topic of death.

Some cultures celebrate death as any other rite of passage. But in our Western culture, we ‘other’ death. It’s a taboo subject.

At CHI2011, a whole session was dedicated to the topic of death and bereavement and a few researchers are making headway into this interesting topic. However, I am left thinking that our work needs to look at opportunities in considering societal issues with taboo subjects using the social media spaces our society is already embracing rather than creating new sites and tools that people are ready to ‘other’ (distance themselves, or create a distinction between themselves and that place or those people) just as they do nursing homes and hospices.

Facebook allows you to memorialise the dead, but it doesn't suit everyone

So while Facebook continues to have problems with managing the fact that its user base will die – really die – we all have to address what we want to have happen with our social media accounts when we fall off the twig. The first place to consider how we want to have our social media lives finish up or continue, is to recognise how we feel about the people in our current friends lists on social media sites still being there when they physically pass on. Most people I know have at least one deceased person in their Facebook friends list. Nobody unfriends them. They just sit there. Living alongside all the other vibrant people in your stream, yet not. Typically, if it makes you uncomfortable to see faces of people you know are no longer physically operating their own account, then you’re unlikely to want that to happen to you. But at the same time, it seems harsh to unfriend or even just silence that person’s stream.

Do you have people in your Facebook stream you know are now deceased, and how do you manage it?


  • wow, so true. Like you said, I prefer not to think too much about it. But, I have been lately b/c of stupid cancer attacking several good friends. Hate cancer.

    Still no answers but thinking . . .

    (and I love your title)

  • I posted on my (old high school) friend Cynthia’s wall last summer, and a few days later got a message from her sister letting me know Cynthia had passed away, months earlier.
    I had no idea. When I went back and re-read her wall, it still wasn’t obvious. My heart was sad, because this person, who had been so kind to me in high school, had passed on, and I didn’t know. Her sister was monitoring her wall periodically, and pointed me to a FB wall where I could post memories of Cynthia for her family & husband to read.
    I am thankful her account is still on, if only to look back at pictures of her smiling and remember her.

  • A friends brother past away a couple years ago and his Facebook friends turned his wall into a memorial of sorts. I’m pretty sure his page is still up and his friends are still Facebook friends with me even though he is no longer living. I have always found it interesting, but now that you mention it, his Facebook wall is a sort of roadside memorial.

  • This is a fascinating topic. And what’s more fascinating to me is the fact that I’ve never thought about it before. BIG issues.

    I have not yet had to deal with death in this way. I guess I like the idea of their FB page as a touchstone, much like those memorial signs that spring up along a street. A place to go to remember the person, to see the footprints of her life, to join others in mourning and healing.

    Great topic. And this? “fall off the twig” — made me laugh.

  • Ha! Lori you are absolutely one of the lucky ones, not to have anyone in your friends list ‘fall off the twig’. I love the way you think it’s probably nice to have them around, like a touchstone, and that might be why so many of us keep them in the list.

  • This is actually happening to me right now. my father passed away early this year and not only do the groups he was in keep popping up but also pictures and “memorable” things he said a year ago… It’s kind of creepy actually. 🙁

  • I’m so sorry to hear it, Chrissy. Some people find that having pictures of their loved ones who have passed on ‘pop up in Facebook’ is uncomfortable and even disturbing. Others find it to be the opposite. I hope you find a way to navigate it that makes you feel at ease.

  • I have written Facebook an email everyday for 134 days. I’ve included the request to take down my adult dead son’s Facebook page and I have 5 addresses it goes to every single day of those 134 emails. I attach my son’s death certificate, birth certificate showing me as his Mom and a copy of the Power of Attorney. 134 emails later, with a chart showing each day I sent the email, what # it is in sequence and notes and STILL, the site remains up!
    We are a small family, his Dad and I are celebrating our 42 years of marriage today, his sister and his 16 year old son. All 4 of us are in agreement that this site needs to come down and yet, it remains up.

    Do you have any idea what a person who is next of kin can do to get any results on this. It is agonizing for me and all of us think this site is just plain “creepy”! Our son was killed in a violent shooting. This site causes us unnecessary pain and I just have no idea what to do next.

    Any suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated.

  • Hi Louise. I am so very, very sorry for your son’s tragic passing, and sorry his Facebook page is still causing you pain. Facebook has a form you need to complete in order to have his page memorialized. This will stop people from posting on it, and I understand that it removes from view all of his wall posts. The link to the form is: https://www.facebook.com/help/contact/?id=305593649477238 Unfortunately to take the page down, you need to know his password and login. I hope this helps. And my sincere congratulations on your wonderful 42 years of marriage.

  • Thank you so much for your kind words, unfortunately, I did fill out the form a multiple number of times and submit it and also stated that we did not want the page memorizalized. Even more unfortunate is that I believe that one of his “friends” put up his page so I don’t know any of those passwords. It has been quite a struggle over these last 8 months and as his only nucleus family of 4, it seems that a friend can set up a page! Isn’t that just awful? I am rewriting out will now to assure that all “social networking” is removed for all of us going forward but that does not resolve this issue. Since Brett is no longer living and I supplied the information they required, it is hard for me to believe that in 134 days, they have not taken down that site.

  • I am thinking about writing a statement from the 4 of us, along with death certificate, birth certificate and copies of Drivers Licenses and having it notarized stating that we want this taken down. Don’t know if that will do any good, but at this point I think anything is worth a try. I am considering sending a letter to our Congress people and asking them to get involved.

Leave a Reply