Planning and managing a digital afterlife

Planning & managing digital death; photo credit Thomas Edmondston-Low

Planning & managing digital death; photo credit Thomas Edmondston-Low

Towards the end of 2012, my younger brother was killed in Afghanistan.

While we knew the work he was doing was dangerous and acknowledged there was a risk he could be killed while serving, my parents and I didn’t entertain the possibility that he would.  This is the beginning of the rest of our lives without him.

My brother crammed so much into his 29 years, it’s hard to fathom how he managed it.  Our family continues to receive letters from friends and colleagues offering insights into his adventures, expanding our knowledge and repertoire of stories about him as a boy, a man and later, a soldier.

He lived and worked in five countries, spoke three languages and trained in places such as Nepal and Brunei. He was a keen sportsman, taking up competitive boxing and tributes on his social networks consistently referred to his talent with a cricket, rugby or hockey ball.

As well as being nauseatingly accomplished, he had a wicked sense of humour, was popular and remembered by friends and acquaintances as a gentleman. The nature of his job and the travel involved meant that he had friends all over the world. On the cold, grey, rainy day of his funeral in the North of England, I met people who had travelled from Australia, Germany, Japan, Kuwait, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States to say goodbye to him.

So why am I introducing you to my brother? Mostly because I’m so proud of him that I want everyone to know and remember him.  The initial shock experienced by family and friends is starting to subside and the occasions we’ve had to commemorate his life, have been and gone. Life goes on as updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn illustrate and it has done for a while.

But in the midst of the emotional aftershocks, there are some aspects of his online life that our family has grappled with recently.  My brother has left behind a digital estate and we’re not sure how to administer it.

As well as the many physical mementos he’s left behind, he’s endowed us with an abundance of online memories and content. He applied common safeguards and was security conscious but didn’t consider what he wanted to happen to his digital footprint in the event of his death. This isn’t surprising. Discussions around this subject are not standard procedure during the execution of a will.

We’ve inherited his memories via data in the cloud, email accounts, social media and mobile accounts. While policies and administrative access are some of the items we’ve had to work out, we’re continuing to have philosophical and often difficult discussions on whether we’re managing his online presence in the right way, in the way he would have wanted.

Social plays a significant role in the grieving process for younger generations. With his active, social and well travelled lifestyle, the variety of his in-person relationships and social groups was mirrored in his online life. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how to communicate online with grieving friends, the management of his communities and other general social media etiquette. Often we’ve received questions from people uncertain about appropriate online behaviour while mourning. Weeks after his death, one of my brother’s friends dropped me a line asking when it would be appropriate to update the tribute cover photo on her Facebook page that she posted at the time of his death.

I’ve also mentioned that I want people to remember my brother but how do you do this with  his digital profiles? In the famous words of Laurence Binyon, those who have fallen… “shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” We have memorialised his online presence on Facebook but will we change the way he is remembered? At what point should we consider taking down his profile.  Or should we?

So, from time to time, I’m going to share some of the experiences that our family has had since we inherited my brother’s digital legacy and how we’ve resolved the discussions I’ve mentioned. At the same time, I hope to offer practical insights on what to think about in planning a digital will as well as some thoughts on etiquette around death in the digital age.

We don’t have the answers and are working through scenarios as they come up or we think about them. I hope you’ll share your experiences and thoughts here as I write about ours.

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