How Facebook won’t let you die

One of the ‘problems’ with Facebook is that when a person dies they don’t die.

I was reminded of this a few hours ago when I did one of my rare logging-in to Facebook in order to just have a sniff around.  I was greeted by a list of ‘Friends’ birthdays, as we all are, with the usual excited rubbish from Facebook suggesting I could send them a present.

I noted that today was the birthday of a chap who used to use Facebook, but died back in May 2009.

Oh, how the years have passed by and, I suppose, how he had been forgotten.  I’d not thought about him or remembered him in any way until I spotted the Facebook reminder that it was his birthday.

I clicked on his name and was taken to his Facebook timeline.  And there it was.  By scrolling back I could read his last ever self-written ‘status update’ and then noted a day’s pause before his timeline then filled with condolence messages from people who knew him and people who loved him.  Then people had said stuff on his birthday which fell 3 months after his death.  Then they remembered him at Christmas.  Then on the anniversary of his death. Then his birthday again.  And so on, year after year. As well as these, people would come and tell him their very important news.  New job.  New baby.  They would write it on the deceased’s timeline as if they were sharing their news with him, adding a ‘miss you’.

Naturally, of course, less and less visited as those years went by.  More people ‘forgot’ him.

I guess that’s a bit like a gravestone.  It has lots of visitors for the first few weeks, the first few months, Christmas, Birthdays, and anniversary of the death, but within 5 or 6 years, only those most deeply affected by the death will make the journey.  After a while, even their visits become less frequent.  Or, they too die, and there’s nobody left to remember.

This process of remembering and then forgetting people has now transferred itself to Facebook.

But, when it comes to graves and tombstones, on a regular basis these are ploughed over and broken up, allowing for new dead people to be planted where others were planted a hundred or so years before them, unless they are very rich and can pay for the grave and gravestone to stay for longer.  Most people can’t and don’t.  Plus, of course, most people are now cremated.

What will happen on Facebook?  Will there come a time when Facebook switches off a timeline of a dead person, or will they exist there forever?

Will those wanting to trace their family tree in 500 years from now be looking up Facebook timelines that became frozen in time once the ‘owner’ died?  Will they see our immortalised last but ironic status updates like, “Got a bit of a cold today”?   Will they be able to watch as those visiting to mark the passing became less, or indeed, click through to see when they died?

I can’t decide if all this is very morbid or actually quite a comforting thing.  However, soon, Facebook will be the genealogist’s friend.  What on earth will they think of their ancestors?