On Tuesday, a girl I grew up with died of a rare form of cancer. She left behind two little kids, a husband, a large extended family, and a community of heartbroken people who loved her. She also left behind a Facebook profile.
I'm halfway across the country from where I grew up and the only newspaper in town doesn't have the most meticulously updated web presence, so in the hours after her death, my former high school classmates and I huddled together on the social networking site, sympathetically "liking" each other's statuses and sharing stories. One corner of my digital neighborhood turned into an impromptu memorial service.
A cynic might conclude that Facebook mourning is the emptiest possible way to commemorate a death, that publicly reflecting on the way a person impacted your life is a way to make their death About You. But when people who spent a part of their lives in the same place find themselves scattered far and wide, the internet is often the only place everyone can get to on short notice. And people from my hometown have used it, again and again, as the kids who were everywhere during our childhoods — the ones I'm hugging and beaming alongside in my preschool pictures, the ones who were sitting at the other end of the lunch table in seventh grade, the ones standing in the row behind me in the basketball team yearbook photo — pass away. Their ghost profiles are there, memorials of their own construction, the deceased presenting themselves in a way they'd want to be remembered.
Knowing that even though I can't visit the cemetery in my hometown on a moment's notice or fly to the Midwest any time someone passes away, I can mourn alongside other people or pay a visit to a departed person's profile any time is a surprisingly comforting feature of Facebook. As morose as it sounds, I actually like that as it ages and its users begin dying in larger numbers, it will become somewhat of a "digital graveyard."
What I don't like is that as Facebook currently exists, there's no way to designate that the owner of a profile has died. And the site isn't currently separating the dead from the living at all.
That means that as more people die, in a user's daily meanderings on Facebook, it's more and more possible that they'll accidentally come across the digital grave of someone they care about who has passed. It's like a town with no zoning laws, where a person could walk into the bakery and be greeted by two smiling faces of friends and the burial plot of their first grade teacher, or turn a corner and suddenly find themselves unexpectedly in front of their cousin's death announcement.
Facebook does have a policy on dead users that only relates to privacy settings and the provision of "Look Back" videos to grieving families. What it doesn't have is a specific DECEASED designation that users can select in loved ones' profiles that will prevent suggesting to a dead person's friends that today might be a good time to wish them Happy Birthday (and prevent the embarrassing phenomenon of random people rotely wishing a dead person HAPPY BIRTHDAY, no idea that they'd passed away months or years before). Owners of profiles that have gone inactive for a long period of time could be prompted to indicate that they're not dead, just not on Facebook, or have their profiles shuffled into an "inactive" category. Separating the dead from the living doesn't only prevent users from suddenly bursting into tears at an airport McDonald's or exposing themselves as inattentive phonies with a halfassed birthday wish to someone they had no idea was dead, it also gives people a specific space to visit on the web when they do feel like reminiscing about the life of a person and interacting with others about that life. A digital graveyard, a separate mourning space.
Yesterday, on The Daily Dot, Nico Lang wrote about the loss of a best friend and noted that "Facebook and funerals are for the living." I'm sure this isn't a function Facebook anticipated serving, but with millions of users dying every year, at one point, the site will have more dead users than living ones, and the living will rely on it to help them cope with the absence of the dead.
I like that my classmate's Facebook profile will be there. Pictures of her easy smile with her husband and children and friends. People wishing her a happy birthday just a few months ago. Messages from people who loved her, all in one place. But Facebook should leave her — and the other deceased users — in peace.
Update: Facebook does give users the option to turn pages into a memorial, but this isn't widely used.