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The Social Media Obituary

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Emily Longley, the New Zealand teenager who posted a status update on Facebook concerned about a stalker on May 4, 2011 was found dead 3 days later on May 7th in a home in the UK.

Longley expressed her fear in a Facebook status, where said she was really scared. "Someone just called me. They were like 'You don't know me but I know everything about you.' "He kept asking me out. I hung up and they won't stop calling. And I was like 'how did you get my number?' and he was like 'I'll tell you when I see you'."

After her death, inappropriate comments were posted on her Facebook personal page, As a result, it was removed and replaced with a community Facebook page in memory of the 17-year-old beauty. The RIP Emily Longley page received over 16,000 "likes" on Facebook and was removed due to inappropriate and lewd comments. Stories like these are tragic and heartbreaking. Pages like these have now become the new and acceptable Social Media Obituaries.

Could her death have been prevented? Perhaps, as investigators in the UK are looking into the incident to see if there's a connection between her stalker and her sudden death while asleep, just three days after her update appeared.

The issue of the "Social Media Obituary" raises eyebrows and some discomfort as many use social media to express their sorrow and mourn with their friends during an illness of a loved one and upon their death.

I first noticed the use of social media for death and dying when a friend and long-time radio announcer George Taylor Morris passed away from cancer in 2009. If a friend of mine on Facebook hadn't posted his funeral arrangements, I would not have known about his death. In short notice, this gave friends the time to travel to Washington to attend the funeral or to post comments and wishes to the family on Morris' Facebook page. For one year after his death, his page remained active on Facebook, although his profile photo was replaced with the Looney Tunes logo saying, "That's All Folks." George would have probably liked that.

At about the same time, a college friend of mine discussed the death of his well-known father, who was a broadcaster on Facebook. His Facebook update said, "A great voice has been silenced. Dad passed away peacefully today at 85. Funeral will most likely be Thursday morning in the Philadelphia area. More later."

He received 21 comments from friends expressing their sorrow and support. Photo memories of his dad were posted along with obituary notices from newspapers honoring him. Updates were sent with details on when and where the family service would be held. The huge outpouring of support from friends expressing their sorrow gave my friend comfort. I started feeling more comfortable about the idea of a social media obituary and using social networking sites to share information and emotions during difficult times. It was an example of social networking at its best.

When I received an email from a stranger on Facebook last year with the news that my college roommate had died of cancer, I was jolted. Finding out on Facebook about a friend's death raised a lot of emotions for me. I did not know the sender. I didn't know that my former roommate was ill. I never had the chance to say goodbye. It made me think about my own mortality, as we were the same age. I didn't know how to mourn 3000 miles away. I went to her Facebook wall and posted an update about how sad I felt for the family and shared a memory. I felt helpless and sad. Had this complete stranger not reached out to me, like many others, I would not have known. I would have posted a 'Happy Birthday' greeting on her wall this year again, as her profile is still active and has not been removed yet.

I started writing a chapter in my book, The Rules of Netiquette: How to Mind Your Manners on the Web," appropriately as the final chapter entitled, "The Social Media Obituary" to talk about this phenomenon. What is appropriate to post at the time of death? When I saw a photo of a newly deceased man on his wife's Facebook page, I thought it was disgraceful. It wasn't a photo honoring his memory and life. It was a photograph taken while still in his bed, moments before the ambulance took his body to the mortuary. The visual was not appealing, nor appropriate.

Finding out on Linkedin that a former colleague had lost her two-year battle with cancer was informative. I appreciated finding out the news. We're learning the rules as we go along, and there isn't one a one-size-fits-all formula.

In cases such as Emily Longley's I have to ask, don't we have a responsibility as friends on social networking sites to help those reaching out in fear? Perhaps the Rutgers student who committed suicide after being cyberbullied might still be alive if someone noticed his final facebook status of, "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry." Perhaps the Massachusetts teenager might still be alive after months of bullying online and offline before she hung herself.

Our social networking sites describe in great details our life cycles. They now include a social media obituary. Should the relationship status also include "Deceased?" Should there be a mourning period where people can write on their walls similar to a funeral home's online guest book, before they are removed? Your comments are welcome on this emotional and sensitive topic.

*Updated on 5/12/2011 to reflect the removal of Ms. Longley's memorial page

Julie Spira is a relationship expert, bestselling author, and social media strategist. She's the author of the upcoming release, The Rules of Netiquette: How to Mind Your Manners on the Web. Like her at facebook.com/rulesofnetiquette