Death, Virtual Grief and Your Digital Footprint

There is no discrimination in the digital world. When a person dies, their virtual selves can remain, existing in the same online space used daily by millions of people.

When a friend has a birthday, Facebook sends a notice. When my brother and sister-in-law celebrate their anniversary, Facebook sends a notice. Facebook and other online platforms keep us up-to-date on the life events of our friends everyday, even for those who have passed.

There is no discrimination in the digital world. When a person dies, their virtual selves can remain, existing in the same online space used daily by billions of people. It’s a double-edged cyber-sword, a reminder of our loss, but also a thread that keeps us connected. A place to tell stories about loved ones, to laugh, cry and be comforted. In this way, social media has also become a space for grief.

A new crop of online services has emerged for people to plan their online afterlives. There are chatbots to talk for you when you’re gone, services to send your emails to loved ones after you have departed, and tools to get the word out when you have passed. Services like GoneNotGone deliver messages to your loved ones on special occasions; Replika allows you to create an AI personality of anyone you wish, including your beloved departed, so they can tell you stories and you can share your day; Remember Me let’s you create online memorials; Eternime provides a space for you to create your own autobiography, store photos, stories and more, for eternity. These are just a few from the ever-expanding field of services to help us grieve, leave a legacy and make meaning of life.

Death just got a lot more complicated.

Now there are decisions to make. Do you want your social media accounts to live on or not? Do you want to send messages from beyond the grave or not? Have you named a Digital Executor? Our virtual footprint after death is a choice we can make now, and can be included in our end of life plan. If you don’t formally name someone as your digital executor, then you can leave a list with login information for all your online “remains” for family or friends to handle. Here is a list of online services to help you navigate your digital afterlife.

The question of who owns the data footprint we leave behind and the moral issues of big corporations profiting from it are touched on in this interview with Elaine Kasket, a counseling psychologist from the UK and author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age.

The choice to keep, delete, or memorialize your social media assets is yours, but you have to let someone know.

Pondering our digital afterlife might feel complex but there is also an upside to the virtual world. It has helped us to break down the walls surrounding the topic of death by giving us a safe place to talk. Social platforms like Twitter bring us together to mourn the loss of celebrities and friends, while other platforms have given us a place to grieve. We can make choices about our digital legacy or leave it to others, but for most of us, some sort of digital afterlife is in our future.


Here’s a quick look at a few options made available to us by the big 3 social media players.

Twitter: Twitter closes accounts of the deceased at the request of family members but only via a Privacy Form.

Facebook: You can add a ‘legacy contact’  to your account. This is someone you choose to look after your online profile if it’s memorialized. To add a legacy contact, go to your account’s general setting, select “settings” and click “manage account.” Type in a friend’s name and click “add”. To let your friend know they’re a legacy contact, click “send.” 

Instagram: If you see an Instagram account that belongs to someone who’s passed away, you can report it and Instagram will turn it into a memorial. To make a report, contact Instagram’s Help Center and provide an obituary or news article as proof of death. Only immediate family members can request the account to be removed.

More Links For More Information

For those who cling to digital messages and memories, the fear of losing the virtual personality is like losing a loved one all over again. Debra Bassett studied the role that text message, voicemails and social media play in mourning today

By 2100 there could be 4.9 billion dead users on Facebook. So who controls our digital legacy after we have gone? Amelia Tait of The Guardian looks at what happens to our identities when we die online.


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