Death and Social Media

Oct 3, 2023 | Resources for Individuals

What the families you serve need to know.
By Jessica A. Koth

Since Elon Musk took the helm of the social media platform. Recently, he made headlines again, but this time, his actions may be impacting the families you serve.

In May, Musk announced that Twitter would be purging accounts that have had no activity for several years. In some ways, that’s a great thing – bots and inactive or bogus accounts can throw off metrics and are ripe for scammers to take over and use for nefarious purposes.

Some of the dormant accounts that were deleted, however, belonged to individuals who have died, causing pain for some families and sparking some public outcry. The Associated Press published an article (https://rb.gy/ly8id) that subsequently appeared in newspapers nationwide about one such individual who saw her loved one’s account deleted. The article read:

“Emily Reed lost her younger sister Jessica more than 10 years ago. For much of the last decade, she’s visited Jessica’s Twitter page to help ‘keep her memory alive.’

Twitter became one of the places where Emily processed her grief and reconnected with a sister she describes as almost like a twin. But Jessica’s account is now gone.

Last week, owner Elon Musk announced Twitter would be purging accounts that have had no activity for several years. That decision has been met by an outcry from those who have lost, or who fear losing, the thoughts and words of deceased loved ones linked to now-inactive accounts.

Reed immediately returned to Jessica’s page as she had done a day or two earlier after learning of the purge. In place of Jessica’s page was an ‘account suspended’ message that suggested it may be in violation of Twitter rules.

Reed’s tweet recounting her shock over the loss of the account has received tens of thousands of responses. Others shared similar experiences of pain upon learning that the account of a deceased loved one had vanished.

‘Having these digital footprints… is super important to me,’ Reed, 43, told The Associated Press…

Reed talks about the importance of Jessica’s Twitter and Facebook pages during her journey with grief — from following her sister’s difficult journey with cystic fibrosis, a progressive genetic disorder Reed also has, to cherishing tweets that showed ‘the joy and… the vibrancy that came out of her words.’

Over time, the image and memories of someone who has passed away can slowly change in your mind, ‘like a fading photograph,’ Reed said. Having online resources, she added, can help keep a ‘person’s memory alive in a way that just your own personal memory can’t.’ ”

Reed is not alone. Many people take great comfort in looking up a deceased loved one’s social media profile and viewing their posts and photos. Some even write messages to their loved ones – even years after their death.

Most of the major social platforms – Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn – have formal processes for memorializing the account of a loved one. The process usually requires next of kin to provide proof that they have the right to memorialize the account, as well as their loved one’s death certificate. Facebook also enables users to designate a “Legacy Contact” – a person who, once an account is memorialized, can serve as a digital executor and look after the profile.

Twitter, on the other hand, has never had such a process for memorializing – or preserving – the account of someone who has died. Its website states:

In the event of the death of a Twitter user, we can work with a person authorized to act on behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.

Request the removal of a deceased user’s account. After you submit your request, we will email you with instructions for providing more details, including information about the deceased, a copy of your ID and a copy of the deceased’s death certificate. This is a necessary step to prevent false and/or unauthorized reports. Be assured that this information will remain confidential and will be removed once we’ve reviewed it.
Note: We are unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of their relationship to the deceased. Read more information about media on Twitter concerning a deceased family member.

Not all that long ago, issues like this were unimaginable. But with so many people using social media they can access with an device they hold in the palms of their hands, it’s a critical question everyone must think about.

Many of you regularly provide individuals and families with a checklist of organizations and companies families should notify when a loved one dies to prevent identity theft. Are you also sharing information about how to handle a loved one’s social media account?

As part of its array of free-to-members legal forms, NFDA has an informational handout you can share with families during an arrangement conference or meeting to preplan a service. It includes information about how social media accounts can be memorialized after the death of a loved one. Download it at nfda.org/legalforms (member login required). The form, titled “Information on Reporting a Death to a Social Media Site,” can be found in the Miscellaneous Forms section.

These days, protecting your personal information online is just as important as protecting it offline. The families you serve would likely be very grateful that you took the time to share information about this critical step they need to take after the death of a loved one.

Jessica Koth is NFDA director of public relations. She can be reached at [email protected] or 800-228-6332.
Reprinted with permission from the July 2023 edition of The Director, a National Funeral Directors Association publication.

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