(Digital) Life After Death: A Perfectionist’s Postmortem Fears

Imagine that you die with computer passwords in your head, leaving coworkers without access to critical files. Imagine your loved ones cannot find your bank accounts, or that you die with a secret that you longed to reveal during your lifetime.

This copy is pulled from the home page of Deathswitch, which I found through a Mashable article from 2010 that rounds up digital asset services that ensure your “online assets”—email, social media, blogging, and other online accounts—are transferred to trusted individuals after you die.

Never mind that the Deathswitch site appears outdated. Its introduction to its “information insurance” services alone gives me chills. It sounds surreal—a concept for a bleak future, one I imagine in a tale of science fiction.

Legacy Locker

I had no idea these services exist: some are free, while some offer paid pricing plans. Legacy Locker, a service that protects your “digital legacy,” has an annual plan for $29.99 and a premier plan for a one-time fee of $299.99, both of which allow unlimited features (the handling of all your assets, an ability to choose beneficiaries, “legacy letters” forwarded to specific people, and document backup).

If I Die

Also consider the If I Die Facebook app, which enables you to create a video or text message, published on your Facebook wall after you die (pending the confirmation of your death by three “trustees” you had selected on your friends list). If I Die’s website is, eerily, light and whimsical: designed in pastel blue with fluffy clouds, and with an introductory video narrated by a man who sounds like he’s reading a children’s book or advertising super-soft fabric softener:

Leave your message today. It can be a farewell, a favorite joke, a long-kept secret, an old score you wanted to settle, or even some valuable advice.

And I am dumbfounded but not sure why. Because these services deal with death with monthly pricing plans? Because we believe we can create an app for everything?

* * * * *

I think about death a lot. Sometimes, as I lie in bed before falling asleep, my mind drifts and I think about people very close to me dying. I cry. It’s a swift release, like a quick downpour in charged, humid weather. And then I fall asleep.

One of my biggest fears is being buried. The fear is so great that I have begun to compile post-death instructions for the people who will “take care of things” after I die:

  • Please cremate me.
  • Please do not hold an indoor memorial or funeral of any kind, especially in a church.
  • While mourning, please do not engage in prayer, especially the rosary.
  • Before scattering, let my ashes sit for at least a week to symbolize a time of transit to whatever or wherever is next. (But don’t let them sit for too long; my cosmic self will get antsy.)
  • Please hold a gathering on a boat and scatter my ashes over San Francisco Bay, preferably during my birth month of August. (Obviously, this cannot be timed.)
  • Please give instructions to individuals I have selected for deleting online accounts and making final updates to profiles I have specified.

And there it is.

I was not taken aback by the If I Die app because it was silly or inappropriate; I was comforted by such a thing: an odd, awkward tool that gives off the illusion that death—while not planned—can be prepared for, digitally speaking. That the virtual residue I leave behind—my photos and status updates and pending friend requests—can be tidied. That my online persona may still be controlled, and unnaturally prolonged, after I’m gone.

I have yet to finish these post-death instructions, which is on my To Do list. And I wonder if I am morbid. I tell myself I am neurotic. For a long time, I disabled the feature that allowed friends to post on my Facebook wall. Because what if I don’t have access to Facebook for several days, I thought, and someone posts a comment on my wall with a misspelling? The wrong your or you’re? An LOL tacked on at the end?

How can I let that sit on my Facebook wall, unedited?

I scan my list of accounts—from the major ones like Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and Flickr, to others like Yelp, YouTube, About.me, and various social travel networks—and decide which ones I will instruct my confidants to delete.

And then I think about the public profiles that I have no qualms about leaving behind, and the aspects of my digital persona that would never change—the bits of data on my various profiles that my spirit would approve, long after I am gone: The default photo I always come back to. My favorite quotations. The phrases I have reserved for “Religion” and “Political Views.”

The perfect, timeless About Me.

I also consider switching my blog’s moderation settings so comments would be forever held in a queue: a limbo of unpublished ideas and questions and responses. Halted conversations, forever unfinished. A virtual buildup invisible to everyone but me, irked because I cannot log in to click “Approve,” as where does one access WordPress in the afterlife?

So I ponder leaving my blog settings as is—I take a deep breath and decide to let the comments roam free, let my blog live and breathe, let it escape an unfortunate quiescence and stay alive, in some tiny way, on its own.

I close my eyes; I think about losing control this way; I freak out.

* * * * *

It’s strange, this world today: where self-control and perfectionism can thrive, where we can shape and polish ourselves, apparently even when we’re gone. And those who want to leave as much of a digital footprint as possible—lured by permanence—can do so.

With all the editing and perfecting and constant creation and reinvention of ourselves, at what point do we stop and let go?

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

13 thoughts on “(Digital) Life After Death: A Perfectionist’s Postmortem Fears

  1. Great post–really a complete essay–Cheri! I definitely want to be cremated; we are still sticking too many people in the ground where they take up space effectively forever. Makes no sense . . .

    1. This response is practical and thoughtful, yet real and scary at once. I realize it’s eerie to write and talk about death like this. But ultimately it is not morbid — it’s important.

      Thank you.

  2. It is all such a burden, it’s enough to have to put one’s physical sh’t in order.
    I hope you don’t mind me sharing this… I first saw it a couple of months ago and it affects me a great deal.

  3. I can’t say I’ve given any thought to what happens to my digital life after I die. This was an intriguing post! I don’t think it’s too morbid to have a plan for what you want to happen if it’s important to you. I will probably put off thinking about it…

    1. Thanks! Glad to know others don’t think it’s too morbid to have a postmortem plan; I think I have a fear of losing control (of my “data”) in general.

  4. Back in high school, I asked a friend to look after one basic arrangement for me: when I die, take a shotgun and blow my head clean off!

    It sounds morbid, but I had several really good reasons:
    1) I fear being buried alive too (especially after watching The Vanishing).
    2) I don’t want to come back to life as a zombie.
    3) I don’t really want to become a future museum piece either.

    I wonder if he remembers this arrangement?

    1. Eeks — morbid indeed.

      Oh, and to clarify, I don’t have a fear of being buried alive. Just buried. (Although being buried alive sounds rather awful…)

      Thanks for the note!

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