BEYOND THE PRACTICAL, lawyer side of digital assets, what about the emotional ripples of dealing with someone’s digital accounts after his or her death? Matthew McCullough, author of Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope and pastor at Trinity Church in Nashville, Tenn., said he’s wrestling through how to advise people about it.
He said in an email that social media can help Christians “to be public with the truth about death” but can also cause people to see death as less than the “fundamental and terrible separation” that it is. “If an ongoing social media account feeds a they’re-still-with-us, nothing-to-see-here, celebration-of-life sort of response to death, that’s telling less than the Christian truth about death and what Jesus has done about it,” he wrote.
Stephanie Seep was able to learn via Facebook that one of the middle-school students she taught for years in youth group had died of a drug overdose at age 18. She found it was helpful to have social media since she now lives overseas and couldn’t attend his funeral. “For me, it was comforting to read what everyone wrote,” she said. “I felt connected to him and like I had a window into his life.”
On the other side of that coin is Kat Gaulin: “It’s the worst when social media is how you find out someone you love has passed.” When her cousin died, the family made sure to enforce a ban on any social media discussion of it until they could inform everyone they wanted to directly.
When Jean Tuggy died, Fisher’s sister-in-law Marie Tuggy handled contacting Facebook to memorialize her account. She sent the company a news link about her murder, which Facebook accepted as proof of her death. Then Marie was surprised that a person from Facebook responded to her personally and shared condolences and explained how the page would work. Jean Tuggy’s friends would be able to continue to post on her wall, but there would be certain limitations to protect from spam and hacking.
Now Marie is the point person for the account, the person who has to report things to Facebook and whom the detectives on the case have as a point of contact: “I’ll be honest, it felt like it would be hard, but I’ve never had to deal with anything further on the account,” she said. “Facebook seems to be taking care of it quietly. … I go over there and look through her pictures at times and check to see if anyone has posted, but it’s slowed down a lot on there. … She gets the occasional birthday wish or love you or miss you which I know she would appreciate.”
Selah Cross’ 26-year-old son Cameron Cross died of suicide in 2017, and she has had to manage her son’s now-memorialized account on an ongoing basis. Only a day after his death, she said, one of his friends began posting on his page repeatedly, asking for a set of tools that Cameron owed him and saying other “mean” things on his page. The financial conflict went on for months.
That wasn’t the only difficulty. At one point Facebook removed Cameron’s account completely, which Cross attributed to a past girlfriend who may have had his login information, but after Cross frantically contacted Facebook, the company reinstated the memorial page.
Overall, Cross said, having Facebook was helpful. Like Fisher, she felt the relief of not having to have many conversations sharing the news of her son’s death. She wasn’t sure whether it was healthy to detach from personal conversations about his death, but she and her husband Earl thought “it was a mercy for us.”
Cross also found Facebook to be a way to continue to share the gospel with Cameron’s non-Christian friends. She put a post up about a year after his death describing how the family marked his birthday. The family sang several hymns including “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (his gravestone epitaph contained a line from the hymn: “Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven”) and “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb,” the song his parents sang with him every night before he went to bed. The family also read psalms and a part of the Heidelberg Catechism, which she posted on his memorial page:
“Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
On the deceased’s profile page, the likes and comments poured in underneath.