Are online services for sending messages after death a first step towards immortality, or an unfair way of refusing to relinquish control even from beyond the grave?
I was surprised to discover recently that there is a huge industry dedicated to offering "digital death and online afterlife" services, which include everything from dealing with your digital estate to leaving posthumous (and sometimes post-dated) messages to recording your own obituary. Digital estate planning is certainly a vital service that none of us can ignore, but many of the other services offered filled me with dismay.
Am I the only one who thinks that perhaps once we're in our grave, even the most controlling of control freaks should learn to let go? That writing your own obituary misses the point? It seems to me that if you can't trust someone else to write your obituary, perhaps you didn't live your life the way you thought you did.
I also think that doing it all yourself is a bit unfair on your loved ones. Delivering a eulogy or choosing the right verse to engrave on a tombstone creates a space for memory. It encourages the mourners to articulate their loss, to talk about their loved one, to find a way to express all that they loved or admired in that person. Although these activities bring pain and heartache, they are also therapeutic for those who are grieving. Having to write a eulogy or organize a tombstone gives the mourners something relevant and meaningful to do at a time of sadness and uncertainty. It seems a shame to take that opportunity away.
It's more than that, though. I feel that these digital legacy planners who write their own obituaries and dictate how they are to be remembered chip away at the importance of memory. I'll give you an example. Recently, a friend of ours was suddenly and tragically killed in a car accident. In the hours after he passed away, his friends and family shared memories of him on social media. Organically and spontaneously, the same theme kept coming up again and again. A multi-dimensional picture of a caring, loving, friendly man became clearer and sharper with every story shared and memory remembered. It was a true reflection of who he was, and I think there was a measure of comfort in seeing it appear. If he had left a message telling us that reaching out to other people had always mattered most to him, it would not have brought the same comfort (or, I think, have been as meaningful) as the shared experience of friends and family sharing that same conclusion.
I have to admit that it bothers me that some of these websites are trying to vanquish death by offering e-mortality. Websites like ToLovedOnes, which encourages you to send written or video messages to your loved ones in the future, promising to deliver them at the right time. TheVoiceLibrary, which guarantees that your voice will be preserved for future generations. Or LifeNaut, a service that allows you to "create interactive avatars, upload content, and even a DNA sample so that you can create a free back-up of [your] mind and genetic code." There has even been a TED talk that suggests that soon we could live forever on social media as a digital version of ourselves, which stores all our likes and dislikes, characteristics, and personality quirks so that we can eternally post and tweet on Twitter and Facebook (which might sound like purgatory to many of us). But everyone who knows some fairy tales knows that no one ever wins when they try to vanquish death.
Before you tell me that I'm being unfair, I acknowledge that everyone who has lost a loved one wishes that they could hear their voice one more time, talk to them, be with them once more. If we were given the chance to see our partner once again, to hear a parent's voice or to share something with a friend, we'd probably all take it. It's a human desire and an entirely understandable one. It is painful to say goodbye to a man or woman we love, but we all know that the alternative is to live in the past.
In the final book in the famous Harry Potter series, Rowling writes about the Resurrection Stone. It's a stone which can bring people back to life, and in the legend which Rowling weaves, it was created when a wizard asked Death for a way to bring back the girl he had loved who had died young. The Stone brings his lover back to him, but she is a living ghost. The wizard could see her and hear her and talk with her every day, but he couldn't connect with her. Eventually his inability to build a deeper relationship with her brought him to such a depression that he killed himself.
It seems to me that these digital afterlife sites are like Rowling's Resurrection Stone. They promise us control from beyond the grave, but it's all just a hologram. Online or offline, all we can do is live honestly, love deeply, and trust that those we leave behind will do the same.
This article first appeared on Staje.org