Death has always been a fact of life. But dying in the digital age is something new, as our myriad online presences -- be they bank accounts, email addresses, Facebook profiles, or Twitter feeds -- have made it nearly impossible to "pass away."
In the virtual realm, there is life after death.
Never before have the surviving kin had to reckon with the digital assets left behind by the deceased. Without a password, web domains, online accounts, and even entire computers can remain forever locked -- or even undiscovered.
In an article on "Preparing for the Digital Afterlife," The Guardian tells the story of Donna Rowling, whose husband Tom had been an avid motorcyclist and kept a blog with pictures of his travels:
"I managed to wrap up his affairs, but the area that I was left with was his presence on the web," she says. Tom was a motorcycle enthusiast, visiting many different countries on his bike and posting pictures of his travels on his blog. He was also a member of Friends Reunited and probably "a myriad of other sites" of which Rawling is unaware.
She describes his continuing presence on the web as "eerie", and would like some of the information removed."Normally you get in touch with friends and acquaintances and colleagues and let them know what's happened," she says. "That gives you closure and stops you being contacted in future and asked how you both are. But to my knowledge, there's no way of doing that with the web. The perception is that he is still alive and well and having fun on his motorbike."
New companies, such as Legacy Locker, AssetLock, Deathswitch, and Slightly Morbid, are being set up to act as e-undertakers, helping individuals to plan for their digital assets, much as they would draw up a will.
But the internet isn't always a headache for the next of kin: it can also serve as a living, interactive, shared memorial to the deceased. Jose Antonio Vargas, editor of HuffPostTech, noted in a Washington Post article published last year,
No one really dies on the Internet. A private life becomes public. Every life finds an audience. Look at Lawrence "Larry" King. The openly gay eighth-grader who was shot and killed nearly two months ago lives on.
Larry lives on Wikipedia, where we learn about his tense life at school, the name-calling, the taunts, the teasing. Larry lives on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, where he's mourned by strangers not willing to let go. Larry lives on Web sites where the 15-year-old's photos -- Larry in front of the White House, Larry on ice skates, Larry getting a haircut -- stare back at us, as if incarnated. Alive.
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