“Do Not Stand at My Profile and Weep” – Digital Life after Death

One of my favorite poems is one by Mary Elizabeth Fry. Most of us in Ireland probably heard it or were taught to recite it in primary school. “Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there I do not sleep”. As someone not attached to any religious set of beliefs, and someone who never really felt “connected” to the person when visiting a grave, this poem always gave me comfort.

In the 21st Century do we visit graves as much as we did in the past? If a friend or loved one has passed away and we miss them, do we now run to their grave to weep or do we navigate to their old social media accounts? For me, I go to their accounts. Is it really reflective of the person I’m grieving? Maybe not. Does that matter? I don’t know.

Imagine a world where we get re-dos. Imagine, after your death that a new, more perfect version of yourself surfaces.

Will we ever be more perfect to a person than after we are gone?

Growing up we didn’t have social media, we barely had the internet and those of us lucky enough to be able to access it we would pull up our empty Yahoo! email inboxes and wait for MySpace & Bebo to be born.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and everything in between are where we share the pieces of our lives that we deem most “likeable” (pun intended) or celebratory. Whether we like to admit it or not, aren’t most of us on some level are guilty of sharing only content that paints us in a favorable light?

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This “digital self” that we create is made up of our images – “my hair looks great in this one”, our location sharing “Here I am collecting an award”, our family moments – “Love getting to spend time at home, family is everything” and our humble brags “Treating myself to a take-away #GotAPromotion!”. All of these tiny actions make up the bigger parts that build our digital self. An ideal version of ourselves, where we are at our most lovable.

We don’t tend to want to share images of our family disputes, our job rejection letters, our bad hair days or our jealous rants. They don’t usually make it into our digital genetic formula.

We keep topping our digital selves up with more and more “perfect” content until one day, we stop. Whether it is because we delete our apps, move on to the next hot social media or we pass away, we stop feeding our digital selves the content. Like a recipe, we start with one base ingredient, add another and another. Sometimes we add a little spice or we make it a little bit sweeter, depending on the taste we’re going for or depending on what we think our dinner guests will “like”. One day though, the recipe will be complete. Then what’s left?

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After we die, many of us with digital lives leave behind that perfect version of ourselves, a version almost easier to love in death than in life… If all that our loved ones have left is a digital self – a self that was carefully cooked, following a step-by-step recipe tailored just for them, is that easier to love?

It could be argued though that having the perfect meal, the most elegantly cooked cuisine is wonderful, to a point. Sometimes you really want a messy, imperfect slap up meal, and everything that comes with it. Aren’t those meals just as filling? Don’t the simplest and messiest of ingredients add to and make more beautiful the most elegant of meals? Couldn’t it be argued that sometimes seeing the whole messy process, the stress, the triumphs and the mistakes of following a complicated and intricate recipe makes the meal more fulfilling?

I don’t think there are any real right or wrong ways to make-up or digital selves – we just do it. I don’t think we’ll ever really know what our digital selves have the potential to become either… Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” explored the notion of creating an almost life-like robot of our dead loved ones. Fed with and built from our own data. The messages we have sent, the pictures we’ve uploaded, the music we have listened to and so on. It seems like an extraordinary thing to watch, it feels like fiction. Something from a sci-fi movie. Are we really so far away from actually being able to expect this?

Microsoft has recently been granted a patent that would allow them to make digital “chatbots” based on the data it is fed. Data perhaps from loved-ones who have passed away. Some reports even suggest being able to train your own chatbot – who could interact with your loved ones following your death. This idea of a chatbot, being one of the first notions explored in the same episode of Black Mirror spoken about previously.

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Memorializing people online is a relatively new phenomenon. E-books of condolences, online obituaries and Facebook takes it a step further by allowing family members to change a deceased loved-ones page to a “Remembering” page. We know so little about what the internet itself can be or become. We know the internet impacts life, now we are beginning to see the internet impact death too.

These spaces appear to offer a lot of comfort for loved-ones left behind. A digital headstone that acts as a portfolio. The highlight reel of a life. Who knows, one day soon we could have a digital version of our loved-ones that we can visit and talk to in the virtual world. What will this mean for death, dying, grief and grieving?

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