Facebook friends even in death

By Vaughn Wallace

Since its creation in 2004, Facebook’s proclaimed mission has been to “give people the power… Since its creation in 2004, Facebook’s proclaimed mission has been to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

The site’s 350 million members use it to do just that — participants share pictures, write messages and keep in touch with friends across the globe.

But what about when someone dies?

Facebook also lends itself as a virtual gravestone, a place where grieving friends and relatives can memorialize their loved ones. Consider it an ongoing death notice.

William McMahon’s Facebook profile is active. Reading it, you can find that he likes surfing, music and Wuzup Dodge’s Fried Chicken. His profile pictures are on par with those of other college sophomores. There are shots of him mugging for the camera and dressing up in a red monster costume as a child. Like many other teenagers, a wide range of interests and tastes (his “online identity”) is revealed through information posted on his Facebook profile.

William’s profile boasts more than 250 friends, many of whom are from his hometown of Pensacola, Fla. Since the new year arrived, seven of these friends have written on his wall and his Facebook status has been updated three times.

William died in May 2005.

For the past three years, William’s mother has diligently maintained his Facebook profile as a tribute to her son, who died at age 16 of liver problems. Kim McMahon, 52, has assumed William’s online identity, approving his schoolmates’ friend requests and tagging photos of her son.

Kim maintains William’s page as both a tribute and memorial. She founded Donate4William, an organization she helped create to promote organ donation, education and awareness. Kim travels around the country raising awareness about organ donation. She’s even lobbied for a new online organ donation registry in Florida, using Facebook to reach a wide range of friends.“I [converted] William’s MySpace and Facebook to mainly keep in touch with his friends who really wanted to help with organ donation,” McMahon said in an e-mail.

Such Facebook memorials — both formal memorial pages and profiles maintained by the deceased person’s friends and family members — account for thousands of postings each day, making the site a powerful tool to remember the dead without ever attending a funeral or visiting a gravesite.

More than 139,000 Facebook groups use the phrase “R.I.P” in their titles, ranging from “RIP Michael Jackson (We Miss You)” with 4,702,778 members to smaller groups memorializing lesser-known people. Other Facebook users choose to write on the actual profile page of the deceased.

When you can flip through hundreds of photos of your loved one and electronically express your grief with others, is it still necessary to visit a physical gravesite to find closure?

A visit to a traditional grave is often a solemn and personal experience, but a Facebook wall can be far from private.

The finality of death is slowly being replaced by an ongoing conversation. Even during the days surrounding a death, grief and shock do not prevent people from posting.

Bryce Kupchella died on Nov. 11, 2007. The next day, his father, Josh Kupchella, visited a memorial page for him, leaving the people who had visited it a message: “Thank You all for the Great notes that prove to us all what a great person and son Bryce has been.”

Virtual memories like these are indicative of a subtle societal shift towards digital ambiguity. Societies have always found ways to express their grief and commemorate their dead. The ancient Egyptians honored death by building elaborate tombs. Latin Americans celebrate the dead each year during the “Dia de los Muertos.” For hundreds of years, funerals were seen as the final goodbye, a chance for physical closure and separation.

Facebook is slowly adapting to its role as a 21st-century record book — keeping the dead alive digitally.

When Facebook executives launched a new version of their site at the end of summer, they added several features, including a “lost contact” finder. This tool automatically peruses a user’s friends list and points out people they haven’t contacted recently.

“It looks like you haven’t talked with Sally in awhile. Reconnect with her now!”

Almost immediately, users posted complaints on Facebook’s profile saying they were being asked to reconnect with the dead.

This backlash from users pressured Facebook to create a blog post addressing the issue. Max Kelly, Facebook’s head of security, addressed users’ concerns last October in a post called “Memories of Friends Departed Enduring on Facebook.”

“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,” Kelly said in the memo.

He stressed that users have always been able to contact Facebook to have profiles of the deceased removed from the site. He also provided a link to a form that users can fill out to notify Facebook.

If relatives can provide proof of death (in the form of a published obituary or death certificate), Facebook will turn the page into a special memorial, keeping the person’s photos but removing their videos and third-party applications. The profile is then removed from search results and is only viewable by friends.

Though some users find this a source of ongoing comfort, for others, it’s only brought more heartache during a time of painful grieving.

Some people had their loved ones’ passwords and were thus maintaining their profiles. But when a profile is officially memorialized, the owner of the account can no longer log in to the site or retrieve some of its content.

Users, confused because it’s hard to find a phone number or e-mail address on Facebook’s site, have resorted to sharing their often private concerns in public comments on the site’s profile or blog, but the company hasn’t publicly responded to their comments.

Michelle Curtis Norris can’t understand why Facebook doesn’t make it easier to correspond with them regarding these issues.

Facebook’s director of communications, Brandee Barker, declined to comment on specific incidents, saying, “Unfortunately we don’t have much to share about memorialized accounts beyond what has already been written about in our blog.”

Norris wrote on Facebook’s blog, “You have memorialized their page NOT at the request of the family but at the request of a vengeful person. Now all of her notes, her personal info page, her videos, etc … are all gone … your policy makes no sense.”

Norris said she was maintaining one of her loved one’s Facebook profiles when someone else told Facebook that the person had died. Facebook locked down the profile. While the wall and photos are still available for viewing, content such as videos and third-party applications have disappeared.

Keith Taylor, a Wake Forest alumnus who recently lost his wife, said Facebook deleted his wife’s profile before he could make a copy. Apparently, an acquaintance contacted Facebook on Taylor’s behalf.

Taylor said in a public Facebook post: “I have no idea who requested that my wife’s account be memorialized, and I don’t know whether I would have been in favor of that had I known it was an option. But I certainly would have at least wanted the right to review and perhaps save her profile for my own book of memories. Now her Facebook profile, which used to be a surprisingly great friend in times of grief, is little more than another photo album.”

Taylor is far from alone in his desire to keep a loved one’s profile alive and functioning. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Research confirmed that our addiction to social media extends even past death. In a study of 20 social networking site profiles of deceased users, researchers noted that more than 4,500 comments were left on the profiles in a 10-month stretch.

In an era when nobody wants to end the conversation, Facebook has filled the role of virtual gravesite. Memorials on the site are solemn, but they’re also celebrations of character.

A gravestone is often limited to 100 characters, whereas a Facebook profile has room to express a love of Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream, Scooby Doo and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Try putting that on your tombstone.