The online series A Good Death is a CBC News co-production with students from the  Graduate Program in Journalism at Western . |  MORE

If you’re one of David Edmondson’s 533 Facebook friends, you’ll notice his account remains surprisingly active. One of David’s latest tagged photos reads " thinking of you bud. wishin we coulda been there to plant the tree, love and missing ya."

David was 22 years old when he fell 15 stories to his death from his apartment building in London, Ont. But even since his death in the early morning of October 17, 2010, friends consistently post comments, images and links on his wall in his memory.  


Click for a larger image of a recent Facebook entry on David Edmondson's page. (CBC)

"It’s a very touching outlet for people to still connect with David," said Steve Edmondson, David’s father. But, is this what David would want? "Personally, I thought it was cool at the beginning," said Aaron Kleinman, a friend of David’s. "Now, it’s just a weird concept."

David’s family hasn’t decided if they will continue to keep David’s account active, memorialize his page or de-activate the account altogether.

Online grief

We have more content in the digital realm than ever before and a debate has started over what should happen to personal information when people die.

Allfacebook.com estimates three Facebook account users will die every minute. That’s 1.78 million people in 2011 with accounts in limbo. 

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Adele McAlear says if the family doesn't connect with their loved one's cyber life, the digital community is left with nowhere to grieve. (Courtesy of Adele McAlear)

And, it’s not just Facebook. User accounts on Twitter, Livejournal, Linkedin, Blogster, Flicker, along with 200 other social networking sites, could continue to float in the online world if they are not dealt with after a person’s death.

According to Kimberly Heiftje’s 2009 PhD thesis on the Role of social networking sites as a meaning of memorialization in emerging adults at Indiana University, David’s friends benefit from leaving his Facebook account accessible. She found discussing grief of a loved one even months after a death was acceptable in the social networking realm, particularly among friends who do not live in the same city.

The problem is that many families may not even be aware of the online friends the deceased may have made over the years, says Adele McAlear, an expert on the relationship between death, social media, technology and creator of Death and Digital Legacy.com.

McAlear says there can be a disconnect between the family and the digital community when someone dies. If the family doesn't connect with their loved one's cyber life, the digital community is left with nowhere to grieve, no matter how close those friends were.

"I have actual friendships online who I have never met in person," she said. "But that doesn’t make them any less of a friend than a co-worker that I see in the flesh every day."

Preventing stress

One way to prevent a family from questioning whether or not to close an account is to let your wishes be known before you die. Through sites like Mywebwill, LegacyLocker and Deathswitch, users can leave behind login IDs and passwords for social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr.

"What we’re talking about online is not a will by Ontario law," said estate lawyer, Cate Grainger. "It’s a contract."

Webwill.com does a good job of explaining what they do, who they are and who they are not, said David Canton, a specialty lawyer in online business in London, Ont. "They make it very clear that they're not acting as a will."

But the concept is quite similar. In a webwill, you appoint someone to contact the site after you die and they provide your "trusted friend" with all of your requests. This can include de-activating email accounts, forwarding your Flickr photos to a friend’s account, or changing your Facebook status to something that may read "See you on the other side."

In an ideal, perfect, and theoretical world your online "trusted friends" would be the same people who are the executors of your provincially approved will, adds Canton.

Online vandals

Many experts agree that having such a contract to close accounts is beneficial. But, some people want them kept open. There are risks. 

After the Australian murders of Elliott Fletcher, 12, and Trinity Bates, 8, in February 2011, thousands of people visited their Facebook accounts. Soon, both sites were vandalized with offensive comments and images.

Facebook’s spokesperson replied to the incident saying that their site is highly dependent on self-regulation by users and that it’s challenging to prevent anyone with bad intentions from adding distasteful remarks on the internet. 

McAlear agrees. "You view nice comments for the first two months," said McAlear through personal experience. "Next thing Viagra spam." 

Industry initiatives

On May 6, 2011, social network administrators, digital designers, legacy planners and other professionals like McAlear, attended this year’s Digital Death Day in San Francisco. The conference discussed what place this digital information has in our lives "legally, sentimentally and historically."

Digital Death Days are steps in the right direction, says McAlear.

However, she believes it’s going to take a high profile case to bring it to mainstream media attention.

How to report a deceased user:

Facebook

Must provide: i) Name of user account ii) proof of death.

Do not need to be a family member to access the account upon death.

Can turn the account into a memorial site to preserves the person’s identity, yet prevents the account from entering the suggestion box.

More information can be found here.

MySpace

Must provide: i) account ID number, not user ID ii) proof of death. 

A next of kin is the only one able to access the account upon death.

Cannot edit profile.

More information can be found here.   

Twitter

Must provide: i) user name of the account or link to the profile page ii) proof of death iii) relationship to the deceased user.

Can save all public tweets.

More information can be found here.  

Google Accounts

Must provide: i) user account ii) proof of death iii) confirmation by a relative.

Takes 30 days to accumulate information from Gmail, blogs, Buzz.

More information can be found here

iTunes

Must provide: i) account name ii) billing Address iii) last four digits of credit card iv) email info to apple.com/itunes/support.

Do not need to be a family member to access the account upon death.

More information can be found here

With files from CBC's Mary Sheppard