5 practical steps in handling the social media presence of a deceased

Picture: Glass Orb made of my wife’s ashes by Ashes Into Glass.

My wife recently passed away at a much too early age having suffered from a rare type of terminal cancer since 2006.

She became very active in the social web around the time she was told she was terminally ill and I will cover how much it meant to her both during the more darker hours of her illness and treatments but also in connecting with people globally making our last holidays fantastic adventures.

But as she was a very practical woman who didn’t linger on sad aspects of life I’ve decided to make the first blog post about her untimely departure a practical guide to dealing with a deceased loved one’s social media presence based on my own experience dealing with hers.

Step 1: Do not do anything!

A person’s digital profile is more complex than you might think. Before I started doing anything I wrote down a rough plan of action to avoid accidentally destroying anything important.

However, blatantly ignoring my own advice, I rushed in and backed up and deleted her Instagram account to avoid her gaining more followers and comments… only to realise that many of her last tweets had links to her instagram photos, so I’d effectively rendered a whole bunch of her final tweets useless!

As pointed out by Michael Todd in the comments: The exception to the rule is automated posts scheduled by the deceased (this could be a scheduled blog post, a scheduled tweet etc.). It is a good idea to turn these off as soon as possible to avoid the illusion of the person still being alive.

So step 1: Do not do anything (but stop automated posts).

Step 1A: Set some ground rules

Update 10th March 2013

I actually did this step from day 1 but never thought to put it down as a step as it just seemed natural to me, but over the last year it has become more clear how much these ground rules have helped.

The idea is simple: Set some rules for your own behaviour as you go through the digital assets. My rules were:

  • Do not read any of my wife’s emails or direct messages from before she passed away. 
  • Do read and reply to all messages arriving after she passed away.
  • If replying via any of her digital profiles always clearly identify that it is not her, but me who is replying.
  • As soon as the appropriate people have been notified (see Step 4) update any digital profiles to broadcast she is dead either with auto-response or by updating any descriptions. For example across her blog I have added a banner saying “This blog is no longer active as its owner has passed away”.
  • Close profiles as soon as I am 100% positive they are no longer needed… but not a second before.

Step 2: Secure email accounts.

Increasingly the digital industry is discussing whether emails are soon to become a thing of the past, but fact is here and now they are the anchor of all digital accounts of an individual.

Even if you use Facebook Connect, Twitter OAuth or similar social login functions, they themselves in turn are reliant on email accounts.

I was very fortunate my wife wrote down her email passwords before she died, but if a deceased person in question did not do this prior to the death then most emails have guidance on how to gain access. Examples: Gmail and Hotmail. However, be aware other accounts can prove more difficult such as Yahoo mail.

Step 3: Identify and secure access to digital profiles.

This can be trickier than it sounds especially if the deceased had several different digital personas. One way to identify unknown accounts is by looking at known profiles as they may link to accounts unknown to you. For example a Twitter account related to the deceased’s hobby may link of to an associated Flickr account.

Another way is looking at links in the deceased’s email signature. And yet another way is to wait to the next birthday of the deceased and look out for automated “Happy Birthday” emails from forums and such.

If you suspect the deceased may have accounts on certain social networks simply enter email addresses in the “Forgotten password” section on said networks. If the person did have an account you will gain access, if they didn’t the system would tell you no user is registered using the email address provided. Either way, problem solved.

The deceased may have accounts logged in on phones, laptops etc. Be sure to secure login details as a priority. Do not rely on the account continuing being accessible on specific devices as they may have time-out functions logging out automatically.

I didn’t come across any nasty surprises digging through my wife’s digital life, but I do realise there is a risk, so I recommend approach this detective work with an open mind.

Step 4: Who do you tell when and how.

  1. In person. People who need to be told face-to-face, via phone or voice/video chat. You will most likely have done this step long before even thinking about dealing with the deceased’s digital presence.
  2. One-to-one messaging such as SMS, email, direct messaging services or other chat facilities.
  3. One-to-many semi-public broadcast. For example a limited group of people on Facebook. Even if such limited grouping functions use terms like “private” or “secret” do remember anything you post on the web can always find a way to leak. It just takes one share or one retweet.
  4. One-to-many public broadcast. Public tweet, facebook message, post of public forums such as messaging boards, etc.

Before you make any public or a semi-public announcement consider whether there are anybody you want to avoid notifying at that point in time. This could be a follower who would be prone to sharing the sad news to the public web before you choose to do so. Another example could be colleagues you are connected with digitally.

Also, note the deceased and you will most likely have different social circles online so you will have to consider the above for both of you.

Practically, here is how I did Step 4:

  1. In person. Notified close friends and family face-to-face or over the phone. I did this even before thinking about her digital profile and I used SMS for a few to avoid having to talk too much in the hospital.
  2. One-to-one messaging: I then notified her main digital friends via Twitter DMs as both she and most of her digital friends are active Twitter users. The few that weren’t I emailed. This, however, triggered a reaction I had not anticipated: Almost all replied wanting to know who I had told, which forced me to initiate point 3 earlier than I had planned.
  3. One-to-many semi-public broadcast: I switched her Twitter account from public to private and blocked any of her followers who were a company, automated feed or a person I didn’t not want to notify at this stage. I also made a Facebook friend list of relevant people on both our Facebook accounts. Then I posted a message on my wife’s Twitter account and both our Facebook accounts.
  4. One-to-many public broadcast: I chose not to post it on my Twitter account until this blog post was done as I am connected to too many people than I care to sift through. But I did post the sad news publicly elsewhere. First on my wife’s hobby blog to thank her friends. Then on my own Instagram account to give myself a way to share my experiences in dealing with her departure.

Be aware the public and semi-public announcements can result in a lot of feedback and condolences. I was prepared for this and had the time to respond to each and everyone, but even then the sheer amount of responses did surprise me.

Step 5: Backing up and deleting accounts.

Inevitably you will want to close down some or all of the deceased’s social profiles. It is important you consider backing up the content. In many ways digital profiles are modern diaries so in the future you may want to look back at the digital life of the deceased.

Some social networks such as Facebook offer the option to turn the account of a deceased into a memorial account. Make sure you consider what the deceased would have wanted, when considering these options.

Be aware some digital accounts can take a long time to close. For example closing an eBay account is straight forward but it will remain open for 6 months after the request has been submitted.

There are too many social networks to go through, but the important thing to review is the relationships between accounts and how deleting one account may affect other linked accounts.

Here’s a quick overview where I am with my wife’s profiles:

  • Instagram: As mentioned earlier backed-up and deleted.
  • Emails: Keeping all her accounts just in case, but unsubscribing mailing lists as they come in. I wish there was an industry standard to trigger an auto-unsubscribe.
  • Twitter: Will keep it open as a communication channel for the foreseeable future as most of her hobby friends use this.
  • Her personal blog: Will keep this open for the foreseeable future, probably as long as I can.
  • Facebook: Will back-up and delete as per my wife’s request once the last memorial events for her have taken place.
  • Flickr: I did back it up and moved it to her blog, but a lot of people seems to be accessing her photos on Flickr so I may let it run until its pro-account is up for renewal again.
  • Pinterest, Delicious, Linkedin, Hootesuite and other fairly stand-alone accounts: Deleted.

A final thought

It is very important to realise you are unlikely to be able to control every aspect of your departed loved one’s digital presence.

  • First of all their digital footprints will be all over the web not just on their own social profiles.
  • Second, digital friend are likely to chat and share their grief online and in doing so possibly sharing entries made by the deceased or yourself.
  • Third, digital friends may choose to erect digital memorials. My wife wanted her Facebook profile deleted, but some of her friends have started a private Facebook group in her honour to remember her by as well as to arrange a memorial hobby gathering.

…and remember: Dealing with the social media presence of a deceased should be dealt with as seriously and with as much sensibility as any other, more traditional, task. It has been a facet of the personality of the deceased on equal terms with the more physical aspects and should be treated as such.

If you have any questions or experiences please share below or feel free to contact me directly if you prefer to remain private.

Update March, 2013

A lot has happened since I wrote this article. It has taken a life of its own helping people across the globe. I’d like to highlight two great articles, which reference this article:


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Share your thoughts

  • As touching as this post is useful, I’ll resist the temptation to console on a blog; you know how to get ahold of me, Robert. 

    I like the 1…4 ways to let people know, in waves.  I get what wrote
    about people doing tribute posts and tweets, etc.  I think you have the
    right attitude in feeling that people should treat a person’s digital
    remnants, their mentions, etc. in a dignified way – but then, give
    people a little leeway if they don’t do things the way you believe would
    be appropriate.  As for me?  I know myself, and know I get read the
    wrong way, so I get hesitant and worry about saying too much.
    I like the glass orb.  
    I’m sure you love it.

  • Thanks Saul

  • I’m speechless. This is one of the most poignant posts I have read in a long time Robert. Thank you for showing strength and grace in this situation my friend.

  • Thank you, Mark. I hope the post provides some practical tips for other people facing the same situation.

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  • Michael Q Todd

    Wonderful thoughts and advice when I cannot imagine what you are going through

  • Michael Q Todd

    I have shared it with the relatives of a few people who have passed on recently but as you say the key advice is “Do Nothing” . Except perhaps stop automated posts coming out

  • Automated posts of the deceased is something I haven’t considered. Thanks for that, Mike.

  • Thank you.

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  • Natural Death Centre

    a most helpful piece

  • Thank you and thanks for sharing.

  • eClosure

    This is a very insightful and thoughtful approach for you wife’s social media that you were brave enough to share with us. It was an interesting read to understanding the various methods to dealing with social media after death. Thank you!

  • Hi. Thank you for your comments and great to see a company like yours ( taking a more professional approach to help people.

    Here in the UK I had so much help and support from the state in terms of everything related to my wife’s passing except the social media element, which they simply don’t have the expertise (yet) to deal with.

    But that doesn’t mean the need isn’t there so good you are picking this up

  • eClosure

    Hello again!
    Thank you very much for your commendation. We really do appreciate it and completely concur with the state’s lack of concern with social media issues after one’s passing.
    May we feature your comment on our website? And may we also feature your article on our website to share for our customers to garner helpful advice from your experience? Many thanks!

  • I’ve actually already responded to an email from your colleague Paula Wu about that back in December.