In the era of social media, should we delete the dead?

This is a situation which our family ran into recently, so when I saw an article on the subject at the Boston Globe it immediately caught my interest. These days, social media isn’t just for those annoying kids who won’t get off your lawn. Increasingly, almost everyone has a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, an Instagram account and all the rest. Older Americans are increasingly active on social media and the technology is mature enough that some of the early adopters are aging out of the “darn kids” category.


Unfortunately, that also means that more and more social media users are dying in greater numbers. So what happens then? Those accounts are full of photographs. Selfies, special moments with family and friends, beloved pets and your one true love. Text entries capturing memories in real time, in some cases already spanning decades. Should those accounts be left out there in perpetuity as digital shrines to the deceased? Or should we be more mindful that they can be painful reminders to those left behind?

It’s been 10 months since Jenn Forman lost her mother to cancer, but seeing her mom’s name in her contact list — in favorites, where she’s always been — can still trigger the grief Forman is struggling to move past.

“Sometimes I think maybe it’s time to delete it,” said Forman, 35, a medical assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “But I can’t do it. I feel like if I delete it, then she’s really gone.”

On its face, a phone contact seems like such a slight connection. But in an age when physical heirlooms have become less significant — many adult kids don’t want to inherit mom’s dining room set — the seemingly emotion-free phone contact has become a meaningful way to hang on to a relationship, a lifeline to the deceased.

“I feel deleting their numbers will be deleting them,” said Rob Marco, 38, of Marlborough, explaining why his late cousin, grandmother, and mother remain in his contacts.

Ah, yes. The contact list, whether it’s your email contacts or your phone list. When I’m going to connect with my brother I start typing the last name (since he lists his last name first) and the typeahead feature brings him up, along with my sister and a cousin…


And my mom.

My mother passed away just before Christmas a few years ago and I’ve only just recently gotten to the point where life is returning to something near normal, with the good times lasting in my memories and bad times at the end softening around the edges. But every once in a while she pops up in my contact list and it’s like a punch in the gut. Yes, I could have deleted her contact information by now, so why haven’t I?

No. That’s a lie. I couldn’t have done it.

So I can see how some people might not want those digital reminders out there floating around. Some people turn the Facebook pages of their dearly departed into “memorial pages” and I suppose that’s okay if you’re the next of kin. But it’s probably still jarring to many who were close to them. And as technology advances, it may get even more jarring. Check out this description of a company that offers to make realistic avatars of the dead built from their online profiles.

[I]t’s unlikely to be long before technology makes possible even more sophisticated ways to remember the departed. A California startup called Eternime Inc. is in the private testing stage of signing up people who want to live forever digitally. “Eternime collects your thoughts, stories, and memories, curates them and creates an intelligent avatar that looks like you,” the website reads.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a horror show to me. If my wife wanted to do that with my digital remains I guess I wouldn’t try to forbid it (and I assume I won’t care much about it at that point), but it still just sounds sad. Our memories of the departed fade over time for a reason, or at least I believe so. You can’t live the rest of your life balanced on the sharp edge of grief the way you experienced it in the immediate aftermath of such a loss. You’d go mad eventually. The more I think about it, the more I feel these digital graveyards may not be such a great idea after all.


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Jazz Shaw 5:21 PM on September 27, 2023