Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Web

SxSW 2016: Everybody Dies: What Is Your Digital Legacy? Friday, March 11 @ 5pm

Everybody Dies: What Is Your Digital Legacy?
SxSW 2016 Panel with Alethea Lange, Dr. John Troyer (from Death Ref!), Megan Yip, and Vanessa Callison-Burch
Friday, March 11, 2016 @ 5pm
Austin Convention Center
Room 8ABC

Death Ref John will be at the South-by-Southwest 2016 Interactive conference on Friday, March 11 to discuss digital technology and legacy issues. He’s speaking with a really dynamic group, all of whom represent different angles on the Death and Digital Technology world:

Alethea Lange (@AletheaLange)
Policy Analyst, Center for Democracy & Technology

Megan Yip (@MeganYip)
Lawyer, Law Office of Megan Yip

Vanessa Callison-Burch (@vcb)
Product Manager for Memorialisation, Facebook

And here’s what they will all be discussing:

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Ben Franklin’s quote has survived because he was a famous man in his time. But haven’t you said some clever things in your time? Maybe even Tweeted them? Technology has democratized history–no longer are only the lives of the rich and famous carefully preserved, now most of us have exhaustive records of our lives in our emails, chats, social media posts, and digital photos. States across the country are updating their estate laws to reflect this new reality, but the right answers aren’t obvious. Should your emails be passed along? Should your online presence die with you? How do you want to be remembered?

You can send the panel questions by using this hashtag: #techlegacy

Death and the Internet. It’s kind of a big deal.

Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web

Day 19: Digital Death Bill Marches Onward

Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act Approved
A new act approved today by a national law group provides comprehensive provisions governing access to digital assets. The Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) was approved by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) at its 123rd Annual Meeting in Seattle
Uniform Law Commission Press Release (July 16, 2014)

The Death Reference Desk has been so busy this week with all things assisted dying that we missed an important development in the digital death world.

Earlier this week, the Uniform Law Commission approved a new model law that allows access to digital assets, i.e., photos, documents, social media accounts, etc., by a person other than the original owner if an executor is named.

The ULC develops proposed legislation for potential use by all 50 US States. This particular bill is important for anyone thinking about who or whom will have access to your digital files, assets, properties, e-mails, photos, etc., after you die.

We’ve only got the press release to work from right now, which isn’t ideal, but there will more to come about the ULC’s approval.

The approved bill is summed up this way:

In the modern world, digital assets have largely replaced tangible ones. Documents are stored in electronic files rather than in file cabinets. Photographs are uploaded to web sites rather than printed on paper. However, the laws governing fiduciary access to these digital assets are in need of an update.


The Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act [UFADAA] solves the problem using the concept of “media neutrality.” If a fiduciary would have access to a tangible asset, that fiduciary will also have access to a similar type of digital asset. UFADAA governs four common types of fiduciaries: personal representatives of a deceased person’s estate; guardians or conservators of a protected person’s estate; agents under a power of attorney; and trustees.

But don’t worry, if you want to hide embarrassing e-mail messages or make sure that no one knows about your online shenanigans (we’re not judging) then this proposed legislation covers those situations too.

Just remember: if you don’t want the kids to know about it, then don’t do it online.

You can read the bill here.

Unless, of course, we’re all just living in a digital simulation.

Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web

Live and Let Social Media Die

Government Advises Americans to Create ‘Social Media Will’ to Handle Facebook, Twitter, Email Accounts After Death
Meena Hart Duerson, New York Daily News (May 7, 2012) Writing a Social Media Will
It’s unfortunate how many people believe that estate planning is only for wealthy people. People at all economic levels benefit from an estate plan. Upon death, an estate plan legally protects and distributes property based on your wishes and the needs of your family and/or survivors with as little tax as possible.

Social Media Executor. This is the individual that the’s website recommends you use to manage your Social Media Will. For the foreseeable future, that’s a growth industry job. It’s also not that new. In one way or another, the Death Reference Desk has discussed the nuts and bolts of postmortem social media issues with Facebook, digital assets, and the Death + Technology section. The Economist magazine also recently weighed in on this topic, so it must be serious(!).

What is slightly different with this specific Death Ref post about the postmortem digital word is’s involvement. We now have an official American government website making recommendations about creating a Social Media Will. I don’t want to overstate any of these suggestions, since five years from now ‘social media’ may well have morphed into something totally different.

The next big question will be whether or not, and how, postmortem digital assets could be taxable as inheritable wealth. I have no idea how that issue will play out but I expect somehow, somewhere this situation has already arisen.

In the meantime, check out’s social media will suggestions.

Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law Death + the Web

Poor Dead Steve Jobs May Not Own His Dead Image

Who Owns Your Image After You Die?
On the Media (January 13, 2012)

Here’s a really interesting radio story by WNYC’s On the Media about what happens to an individual’s image after he or she dies. A Chinese toy manufacturer wants to create a Steve Jobs action figure. Apple successfully blocked a similar product in 2010 but may not be so lucky now that Jobs is deceased–with his “personality rights” with him.

steve1Add these concerns to the long list of postmortem digital media ownership rights. It also turns out that each state across America has different laws for handling these situations. The main interviewee for the story, Jeff Roberts, does a good job explaining how the state-by-state laws work.

Keep an eye on this story. As more and more of everything shifts to a digital format then the very idea of an “owned image” will be challenged.

Indeed, it’s a situation Steve Jobs helped create.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology Death + the Web Grief + Mourning

Inventing the Future of Death

Recent design school graduate Jake Shapiro of New York shared his thesis project with us: “The Future of Death” examines how our internet and social media oriented lives have and will continue to change the way we think about and deal with death and grief.

The project, for which Jake designed and constructed working prototypes, includes an external drive that downloads and preserves a loved one’s online data. The LED screen allows users to view content on the handheld device, which can also be docked with the Digiurn — an urn with a screen “where a loved one’s physical and digital existence can be preserved and viewed forever.”

Here’s a demo of the software:

Deathware from Jake Shapiro on Vimeo.

Managing digital assets and identities after death is certainly a timely topic. Some sites cater to password management and transmission upon death (such as Legacy Locker and Deathswitch), while Facebook has death memorial mode for personal profiles. This may, however, be the first effort to draw together a person’s social media output and combine it with the physical reality of the urn and what remains of the deceased within it.

(There is an irony here — online communities can be vastly dispersed with “friends” having never met in person. While grief with such deaths can be indisputably intense, these people will probably not attend the funeral or ever see the urn or grave. In other words, The Future of Death compiles content once shared with a potentially vast network and archives and relays it to only a select few — the family and perhaps close friends. It could easily have an online portal as well, of course — or people could simply go to the original blog, twitter account, and so forth, though the long-term availability of content at its native origin is uncertain.)

While the social media aspect of this is new, there is precedent with digital urns delivering photos, video and audio. Interestingly, search results for such urns mostly turn up cremain containers for pets, suggesting that consumers may consider the product a gimmick or otherwise inappropriate for human remains — fine for your dog, but your dad? No. (They do exist, however: One $900 urn inexplicably states that “This urn can be sealed airtight as well, for those who choose to bury their loved ones.” Why buy an urn with a digital display then hide it in the earth? Eek.)

Jake’s concept diverges not only with including social media content, but in the design itself. Check out these other digital photo urns:

They resemble tiny television sets, complete with remote controls, while the Digiurn is both a throwback and a distinctly modern piece, using the classical urn shape while set up like an iPod docking station.

How comfortable with LED screens and external drives are Grandma and Gramps? Hrm, well, it’s their children to whom such products would be marketed. But in a similar complication, compiling, storing and providing access to the deceased’s social media content assumes he or she participated in it. This is a very current concept for a market that largely won’t need it for another 30 to 70 years.

Of course, this is the future of death we’re talking about. Considering how the internet has evolved over the past 10 or even 3-5 years, who knows what the future will hold for technology, not to mention how it will transform grief. At the same time, as computer scientist Alan Kay so eloquently put it, the best way to predict the future is to invent it — and we can be sure designers like Jake Shapiro will do just that.

Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Funeral Industry

Digital Death Day! (Is Every Day)

Virtual Life after Death
Peregrine Andrews, BBC News (May 22, 2010)

Last week, May 20th, was the first Digital Death Day, an unconference in California of funeral directors, digital identity professionals, attorneys, technologists, entrepreneurs and obituary enthusiasts to share concerns and probably a few crazy-interesting ideas about managing digital identity after death.

Despite DeathRef being followed by digitaldeathday on May 4th, I have been sucked into the void of Other Responsibilities and neglected to pay attention until, oh, May 20th, as the unconference was actually happening. Bad librarian! Suffice it to say, it looked pretty darn cool. It appears that notes, podcasts and such are still being compiled. We’ll link them once they’re up. In the meantime,

The BBC also gets in on the action (article linked above), discussing the issue of digital assets such as domain names, sponsored Twitter accounts and virtual property in online games, as well as memorizing at social networking sites, or otherwise continued online engagement with the person’s profile, as though the person weren’t dead at all. This practice has been criticized as prolonging the grieving process, though others argue that it merely facilitates it.

Good stuff. As this post title suggests, Every Day is Digital Death Day — we’ll keep vigilant for what else emerges from the unconference and, of course, elsewhere on this topic.

Death + the Law Death + the Web

This is What It Sounds Like When Avatars Die…

Virtual Estates Lead to Real-World Headaches
Chris V. Nicholson, The New York Times (November 02, 2009)

I am not an online gamer so I don’t have any experience with the bazillions of virtual worlds inhabited every day by living people. That said, it’s impossible to spend any time online these days without hearing about World of Warcraft, Second Life, or the Sims, so I know all about these places. I never really gave much thought to what happens to a person’s accumulated virtual world wealth until I read this article.

Death Avatar

The key question is this: who (or whom) inherits or keeps your ‘stuff’ after you die but your online persona hasn’t? A number of e-mail services and social networking sites have changed their policies to deal with user deaths. I wrote about a recent Facebook change here. And, as the article linked above describes, Yahoo ended up in court over the release of a dead solider’s email to his next of kin.

The article mentions a company which handles many of these online-property issues, The Digital Beyond, and if I were going to law school right now I would absolutely focus on individual internet property rights. More and more of everything is online and unless the national power grids all go down then that situation won’t change anytime soon.

Lady DeathThe article also discusses this apparently HUGE online incident (based on what the almighty Google showed me) from a 2005 World of Warcraft funeral. Mourning avatars gathered in-game to pay their respects and were slaughtered by a rival group. It’s all like some kind of crazy drive by shooting at a funeral for a rival gang member or something.

But since this incident involves an online funeral turned avatar massacre, someone produced a YouTube video. I won’t pretend to understand what is happening in this video but it looks like a lot of gaming nerds got really really upset:

This kind of makes me want to know what is going on in these online worlds. But not enough to actually become a gamer. Death already eats up enough of my online time.

Cemeteries Death + Technology Death + the Web

The Cyber Cemetery: Where Government Websites Go to Die

264DeathbyCat5-mCyber Cemetery. The University of North Texas, along with the GPO, are the crypt keepers of this depository for the digitally deceased.

As a librarian and archivist, I find this to be an important and worthwhile project. The ephemeral nature of the Internet makes it a constantly moving target, fleet of foot, seemingly larger than the planet itself and inherently impossible to capture — at least in total. But, if someone is going to attempt to archive portions of the Internet, then taking on the US government is certainly a worthy subject. It supports the case for government transparency, which as we know, may be intentionally elusive. Of course accountability isn’t the only reason we should be capturing the data. The preservation of these and other websites is a “best practice” as far as I’m concerned — but then again, I’m a librarian.

There are other places on the web that attempt to capture snapshots of dead websites, like the Wayback Machine — now known as the Internet Archive. But the Cyber Cemetery is the only one of its kind specifically dedicated to government sites. Our digital past is relatively young in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully these digital graveyards, like brick and mortar libraries, will live on as important historical archives and storehouses for our collective memory.

Image: Fantasy Art Design

Death + the Law Death + the Web

Death 2.0h noes!

Digital Immortality and Death 2.0
Scott Lachut, PSFK (August 7, 2009)

From one’s Etsy shop to a Facebook profile to a mega-sweet World of Warcraft character imbued with the investment of thousands upon thousands of hours (if not dollars), the extent and importance of one’s online presence is made most apparent when that person disappears. Sorting through and settling one’s estate after death has always been a headache. Now with many of these matters online, as well as potentially numerous and widely scattered social connections, preparing for death and settling affairs afterward on behalf of someone else comes with additional challenges.

In Digital Immortality and Death 2.0, Scott Lachut examines how social networking and internet culture complicates traditional legal and social death processes, from sprawling online identities to the ownership and legacy of digital assets. While the article is a bit general (I’m still anxious for the inevitable scholarly monograph on the topic), it includes a number of useful links to other commentary on these issues as well as to online death planning and “life after death” notification services, such as the Last Messages Club and Legacy Locker.

Death + the Web

Death’s Not Dead! Leastwise Not Online

Dying is no reason to give up online social life
Richard Mullins, Tampa Tribune (May 26, 2009)

In this AP article, Mullins gives a snapshot of some of the online memorializing and alert services available from or through funeral homes or independent providers. Want your loved ones emailed reminders about your death anniversary for all eternity? No problem. Get swept up by the Rapture and need to pass on some last minute instructions, warnings and/or neener-neeners to all the heathens in your life? You’re covered.

It makes sense that our desire to express ourselves in life carries over into death—and web tech being the medium du jour, why not a virtual cemetery? Nor is it surprising that creative (and often, *ahem*, exploitative) minds look to make a buck on new trends and technology, especially when selling—or better, collecting rent on—essentially nothing for someone who doesn’t even realize it’s happening.

But it is interesting that we look to the web—a rapidly, constantly changing beast—for permanence and perpetuity. It is no small irony that the site (profiled in the article), where you can pimp your loved one’s virtual Zen Garden memorial with golf clubs and other swag (for additional fees, of course), is no longer operational.