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Queeries: What to Do About Facebook After a Death

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2012-01-17-Facebook.jpgQuestion: "My partner Rudy died about three months ago, and I've been in the process of handling his estate (which, since we couldn't legally marry, has been a nightmare, but that's another story). My question for you isn't about the injustice of anti-gay inheritance law, though; it's about Rudy's Facebook page. I was thinking of deleting the account soon, but I see that many of our friends continue to post on his wall -- almost as though they're talking with him. This actually gives me a lot of comfort, so now I'm on the fence. Have the rules of etiquette caught up with death and dying in the 21st century?"

Answer: First of all, my condolences on the loss of your partner, and my sympathy for the inevitable difficulties you're having with estate law. Losing a loved one is so difficult for anyone, and it's doubly cruel for a surviving partner in a relationship that's not legally sanctioned.

You make an astute point about the evolving rules of etiquette around death and dying. New technologies have ushered in changes to longstanding rituals, starting with sharing the news of a death. Instead of the ring of a telephone, these days, it's just as likely to be the ping of an email or text message (or even a tweet) that conveys news of a death. New times also mean new approaches to funerals and memorials, where mourning and grief over a death are likely to be counterbalanced by the celebrating of a life. This tradition was born in our community during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when we lost so many friends and lovers that we simply had to recast the ritual in order to survive.

The ubiquity of social media presents its own set of challenges -- one that Facebook founders certainly hadn't considered at the beginning. (After all, the youthful crowd that invented and initially flocked to Facebook didn't have death and dying on their personal timelines; most people in their early 20s can't really envision a status of "deceased.")

But we all do grow up, and, sadly, we all confront mortality at some point. In response, Facebook created memorial profile pages, which allow us to visit, chat, and stay connected with our dearly departed friends and family. This past holiday season I saw the Facebook pages of several recently departed friends positively lit up with beautiful memories of Christmases past, along with a new outpouring of grief and mourning. On one page, this comment was posted right before Christmas:

"The holidays without a conversation with you. Just doesn't seem right. The day we let you out in the sea, I picked up a rock on that beach. I keep it with me as the reminder stone of the man, the stone, you were to my entire family. Miss you lots. This is going to be our first holiday season without you being here."

In fact, the tributes and comments that accumulate on these pages remind me of the floral bouquets piled on grave markers. One Facebooker commented: "I would never go to a cemetery to visit a plot, but I love seeing my deceased friend's name. And with the name and photos it is like the stone visits me."

Since you find comfort in seeing messages posted to Rudy -- and since it may bring comfort to his other friends -- I'd recommend letting his page live on as a memorial rather than deleting it. To "memorialize" an account, you need to notify Facebook, which will then convert an ordinary page into a memorial one. (Here's how to do so.)

Transitioning someone's profile to a memorial also blocks any further status updates and prevents the deceased from showing up as a suggested friend. Believe me, you don't want a status update from someone whom you know to be dead. And it can get pretty creepy if the deceased keeps turning up on lists of suggested friends, as many of us have experienced. (Because I had a number of friends in common with the late Elizabeth Edwards, and I guess because John Edwards was too busy being a new dad and dealing with his attorneys, Elizabeth's angelic face was repeatedly positioned as a suggested new friend for months after she died. In the end, I just went ahead and blocked her page -- which, by the way, is no sign of disrespect.)

Before you ask Facebook to convert Rudy's profile, though, consider what he would have wanted. Did the two of you ever discuss what to do with his social media accounts, email accounts, and other online memberships after he was gone? As odd as it sounds, the disposition of one's electronic footprint should be a routine part of 21st-century estate planning. So as you think about what to do with Rudy's Facebook account, you should also be considering how to maintain or terminate other online profiles and accounts he may have had, including family trees, online dating profiles, list servs, and more.

This brings us to the wider question of to whom you entrust your account information. This may not strike you as being as critical as naming a health care proxy, but it's still important. Even if there's no one you would trust in life to share your account information with, make sure that in death your wishes are known and your log-in info is available.

I hope it goes without saying that you must never do anything that tries to be comical, or perverse, with the log-in information you hold. Don't sign the deceased up for new groups, or post messages in that person's name. Take your responsibility seriously, and do the right thing by the person who trusted you with his or her virtual life. And practical jokers beware: Facebook doesn't make it easy to memorialize an account -- you do have to produce proof of the death itself and of your right to request the memorial.

This column originally was published on Advocate.com.

Image: iStockphoto.com

Steven Petrow is the author of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and can be found online at gaymanners.com. Got a question? Email him at ask@gaymanners.com, or contact him on Facebook and Twitter.