published Monday, January 27th, 2014

Dealing with death and social media profiles

CREATING A FACEBOOK MEMORIAL

If your loved one passes, Facebook accepts requests from "verified immediate family members" to either remove a profile or turn it into a digital memorial. You first must complete a special form at www.facebook.com/help/contact/228813257197480

To verify a connection to the deceased person, the request must be accompanied by documentation such as the deceased person's birth/death certificate or proof of your rights as the executor of their estate. These documents can be submitted as a scanned image or a portable document file (PDF).

ONCE MEMORIALIZED

Once an account memorialization request is approved by Facebook, the following limitations will be in effect:

• Facebook will not let anyone log into the account.

• The account will only appear in searches to users who were verified friends of the deceased prior to memorialization.

• Advertisements will no longer appear on the profile.

• The user who is memorialized will no longer appear in suggestion lists or event reminders.

• Memorialized accounts cannot be modified, including adding or removing friends, modifying photos (including the cover photo) or deleting previous posts.

• Privacy settings for the account may be adjusted to allow friends to continue to post content such as their memories, to the deceased's news feed.

• Contact information such as phone numbers, addresses and other private sensitive content will be removed from the account.

• The account can still receive private messages.

• Content shared by the deceased person will still be viewable by the audience it was shared with

• Memorialized accounts will not appear publicly, such as in automatic Facebook suggestions such as "People You May Know" or birthday reminders

Last December, a little over a month after his 81st birthday, James Graham died in a Nashville hospital after a long struggle with lymphoma. But when his granddaughter Hayley Graham logs onto Facebook, it's like he's still around.

"Every time I tag a picture or try to tag someone in a status whose name starts with a 'J', his name pops up, and I immediately have this moment when it's confusing to me," the 27-year-old Chattanoogan says. "The other day, I saw his picture pop up, and I had a moment like, 'I really should send him a message.'"

Her grandfather's account is one of about 30 million on Facebook that belong to deceased users, according to estimates by social media specialist Walter Thompson in a 2012 article on ReadWrite.com. In many cases, these profiles are treated as memorials by the living, who peruse their loved ones' photos and continue to post messages and other content to their newsfeed.

In a sense, the world's most populous social network -- 1.25 billion users as of October -- has also become its largest cemetery, with 75 times as many interments as Arlington National Cemetery, which contains 400,000 remains. Family members say the persistence of these profiles can be both a boon and a burden, allowing them to celebrate their loved ones' lives while also causing the occasional pang of heartache when they appear unexpectedly.

A social media profile can be an intensely personal digital reflection of its user, and it's natural to be conflicted about the fate of an account when someone dies, says Chattanooga psychiatrist Dr. Michael Osborne, who specializes in bereavement.

"Given that individuals grieve in very different ways, it makes sense that some would find Facebook a source of comfort and others not," Osborne writes in an emailed response. "I would advise people to determine what works best for them. If they find maintaining a Facebook profile too painful, then it is OK to distance themselves from it, and vice versa if it is a source of comfort, by all means use it."

Graham says some people find solace in continuing to reach out and maintain a connection -- even if it's a digital one -- with her grandfather, but writing to him after his death strikes her as "sort of morbid and creepy."

"For me, it's very strange to see people posting things posthumously ... on Facebook," Graham says. "It might be a comfort to people to see the pictures and things that are there, but I wouldn't want people to be able to go on [my profile] and leave bizarre messages. That just seems strange to me."

Memorials

For years, the unwelcome reminders of a departed friend were almost unavoidable on Facebook. When it launched in 2004, accounts remained online by default unless a user specifically requested it be taken down. If a user died and hadn't shared their password with a loved one, friends and family often were unable to do so, leading to inadvertently morbid reminders to wish a dead friend "Happy Birthday" and suggestions to invite them to an upcoming event.

In 2009, former Facebook security officer Max Kelly lost a close friend and coworker in a bicycling accident. The incident prompted the network to consider ways to offer a way to honor the dearly departed while avoiding the shock of Marley-like reappearances of deceased users on their friends' profiles.

"We had never really thought about this before in such a personal way," Kelly wrote in a note to Facebook on Oct. 26, 2009. "When someone leaves us, they don't leave our memories or our social network. To reflect that reality, we created the idea of 'memorialized' profiles as a place where people can save and share their memories of those who've passed."

Memorialization isn't automatic. Users must issue a request to Facebook and provide documented proof of the death and a familial connection to the deceased. Once memorialized, however, the account is frozen but its content is still viewable by friends, who can send private messages to the deceased like confidences whispered at the digital graveside.

The privacy settings of memorialized accounts also can be set to prevent public posts to the newsfeed, thus avoiding what some say is the primary source of unintentional frustration after someone dies -- too much support.

In 2011, Sarah Martin's mother Nancy Schoensee died due to congestive heart failure and an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. The death was sudden, and the resulting cascasde of condolences was almost too much to bear.

"Every time I got on my Facebook, someone was telling me how sorry they were or posting something about how much they miss her," says Martin, 29, of Chattanooga. "I had to post something that said, 'Look, I'm fine. Do me a favor and stop posting things about her for a bit and let me handle it, because you're driving me insane.'"

Being smothered by support isn't a problem that is unique to Facebook and can just as easily happen offline as on, says Chattanooga psychiatrist Emily Stone.

Mental health professionals agree that dealing with grief is a fundamentally unique process, and everyone must determine how they cope most effectively. If Facebook isn't helping, Stone says, there's nothing wrong with logging off or not feeling compelled to respond to every post.

"Some people who are grieving want people around them a lot; others want more alone time," she says. "Some days you might experience the posts from people as caring; other days they might be on your last nerve. You might even get angry with people.

"This is all normal. Disconnect for a day or two. Give yourself room to go through the messy, painful array of feelings that comes with grief."

For those who have time to plan for their death, social media can also allow them to continue sharing their thoughts with their loved ones after their passing.

A new free service called DeadSocial, for instance, allows users to create a series of messages, images or videos, and schedule them for release to connected social media accounts after their death by an assigned executor.

"This allows us all to say our final goodbyes on our own terms and for us to extend our digital legacy using the social web," reads a statement on the service's website. "Make sure that you are able to say 'goodbye' in your own unique way."

Worst choice is no choice

For some users, the fate of a loved one's profile boils down to keeping it up or -- Facebook's other posthumous alternative -- disabling it permanently. When that decision is taken away, however, the pain can be much worse than deliberating over what to do.

In November, Chattanooga flute maker and American Indian flutist Mike Serna died from liver cancer. His wife, Judy Serna, says he was incredibly active on Facebook. It was where he sold his CDs and flutes, where he would post videos of his performances and how he kept in touch with a fan base that was scattered around the country.

Within weeks of his death, however, Serna says she was unexpectedly denied access to her husband's profile. She says she believes Facebook locked the account after someone tried to guess his password multiple times during a hacking attempt. Without knowing his login information, however, she was barred from unlocking it.

Despite her frustration, Serna says she remained determined to create a new page on which to post the many pictures and videos she has saved. Building a new profile, which went up on Facebook on Wednesday, would absolutely be her husband's wish, she says.

"It would please him so much -- he would be grinning from ear to ear -- if he knew I was trying to chronicle his entire life on Facebook," she says. "I just have so many people saying they really, really, really want this up. They say I have his whole life in my hands, and they want me to share it with them.

"Would it be easier to mourn his death without doing that? Sometimes, I think yes, but then I catch my breath and think, 'I should be doing this for him.'"

The new profile offers her a way to celebrate his life instead of fixating on how it ended.

"I think when you visit a grave site, that connects you with death," she says. "You can't stand there and feel like that person is alive. If you go to a Facebook page and see these very full-of-life photos, it's like it never happened.

"You know you won't get a response back from him, but you can feel his live presence."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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