E-mail After Death

A conversation yesterday got me thinking about what happens to our online presence after we die. I thought it might make a good article for the newspaper, or perhaps for something larger; but in researching the idea, I found that someone else already had that idea.

The Baltimore City Paper published “Ghosts in the Machines” in June 2004. The article follows the story of Aaron Huth, a 20-year-old who died in 2003. Ruth was a musician and avid Web user, and he left an immense online presence to be dealt with after his death. This included closing accounts, managing social networking profiles, and even dealing with the deceased e-mail.

A year later, friends and family still hadn’t been able to finish the job, partly because they didn’t know how far his digital identity extended and partially because they just didn’t want to erase every last bit of Ruth’s life.

This makes me think about my own online presence. At last count, I used four e-mail addresses actively–with probably another 15 registered addresses. I have Web hosting that draws from my bank account. I have a World of Warcraft subscription. I have MySpace and Facebook profiles. I have Technorati and Blogger sites. I have memberships at more sites than I can remember.

Who would delete them if I died? Should they be deleted, or should certain pages on the Web remain forever as tributes or memorials to the dead? If, as Newsweek proclaimed last year, the Web is where we live, how will we handle death on the Web?

More importantly, or at least practically, is this something we need to worry about? I would argue that, increasingly, dealing with your digital presence will become a bigger part of end-of-life planning, included along with buying a coffin or arranging your own cremation. As the first generation born and raised with the Web grows older, those still technologically literate at the end of their lives will probably feel an obligation to settle their accounts.

Will it be like no longer going to coffee in the mornings at a neighborhood shop? Will others understand that you’ve excused yourself in preparation for the end of your life?

Interesting questions, brought to you by Web 2.0…

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