Immortality or Purgatory: What Will Happen To Our Online-Selves When We Die?


Photo by R Neil Marshman

I received a comment Sunday morning that shook me up in a way that surprised me.  It was on a post about fecal transplants I wrote a couple of years ago that has continued to get a lot of hits over time, mainly, it seems, from people suffering with the C. difficile epidemic now sweeping the globe.

Some of these people left comments on the post and one was from a man named Jay who shared his battle with C. diff. in some detail.  He’d finally found a doctor willing to do the fecal transplant procedure for him and he promised to come back afterwards and share the results.  That was in May of 2012.

He never returned and, honestly, I never thought about him after that.  Over the years this blog has developed a handful of regular followers with a few more who pop in and out for occasional visits, but mostly I get one time visitors.  I didn’t realize how inured I’d become to this fleeting contact, or how much I’d fallen into thinking about most of my visitors as clicks rather than real people living their fragile and luminous lives out there.

But then I woke up Sunday morning, groped through the usual morning fog for my phone while the coffee was brewing, and saw the fecal transplant post had received another comment.  When I clicked through to read it I discovered it was from one of Jay’s surviving loved ones, Cindy.  She wanted to let me know that Jay never came back to post his results because, even though his transplant procedure had been a brilliant success, he died of complications from another procedure a little while later.

Her comment startled and instantly sobered me.  It knocked me out of my safe, cozy, Sunday morning cocoon into a place with a much larger perspective.  There I sat, looking down at the careful, gracious words of a flesh and blood woman who was actually sitting out there somewhere in the world, bending over her keyboard in great loss and pain, and suddenly, through her, Jay ceased to be just a flat, old blog comment I’d mostly forgotten about.  In that moment his online-self merged with his solid, physical self and made him very real for me.

I’ve run across a few blogs over the years that just stopped with no explanation of why.  I always assumed these bloggers grew bored or busy and just abandoned it, but now I wonder how many of them might have physically died leaving their blog-selves in some weird, digital purgatory.  If there isn’t a surviving loved one like Cindy who’s willing, able, and given all the right passwords and permissions to update our blogs and social media sites after we die, then instead of basking in an honored, online immortality of sorts, our digital selves will probably just be cast into limbo…unfinished, unremarked, and unmourned.

But (to me anyway) what’s even more important is that if we don’t take time to make some kind of plan for our sites before we die, then it could potentially cause a lot of confusion and pain for our surviving loved ones.  A person’s Facebook wall can evidently turn into something of a free-for-all when they die and the internet as a whole is still the wild, wild west where digital afterlife is concerned.  It’s something that bears thinking about.

The truth is if Cindy hadn’t found me and let me know, it wouldn’t have taken anything away from my life.  The sum total of contact between Jay and I consisted of one comment and one reply.  It was at most a mild and civil encounter, like a pleasant exchange with someone at an information desk.

But because she had the grace to follow-up for this man that she loved, my life was unexpectedly enriched.  She and, through her, Jay gave me the opportunity to have a Whoa! moment that knocked me out of my busy, triviality-consumed head for a few moments back into my heart and deeper humanity.  I want that kind of interruption in my life.  I want to be reminded that life is priceless and delicate and brief.  And a comment like Cindy’s also inspires me to strive for the same kind of thoughtfulness and grace so I, too, can pass it forward.  You just never know how that kind of thing might touch or help someone else.

Thank you Jay and Cindy.  Please accept my loving thoughts and deepest condolences in your time of sorrow.

I looked around and found a few links to different articles and online resources that I found insightful and/or helpful.  They all shed light on some of the developing ethics of, and how to prepare for and manage, our digital afterlives.  Like wills and advanced directives, it’s something worth thinking about for those we’ll be leaving behind.


Online Life After Death Faces Legal Uncertainty

Death on Facebook Now Common as “Dead Profiles” Create Vast Virtual Cemetery


How To Prepare For Your Online Afterlife  A 12-step guide to getting your virtual affairs in order.

The Digital Beyond  A resource for online services designed to help plan for the digital afterlife.

Online Memorials

On Decoration Day

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

8 responses

  1. Hello dia

    Another good post
    The word purgatory in the title made me sit up.
    Purgatory is the name of an old house just outside of the village.
    I always liked the name…most others hate it

    • I remember you writing about that house once and, even though I’m fascinated and drawn to the whole concept of purgatory, I couldn’t help but think “Who in their right mind would want to live in a house with that name?”
      Evidently, you!! 🙂

  2. What an amazing story. I’ve given some thought to the digital afterlife and heard some discussion about it. But, it’s hard enough tackling taxes and advanced directives. I don’t have the energy or drive to actually delve into digital afterlife. In some ways, it seems a bit of a vanity to worry about. After all, when I’m gone, I expect my physical and digital presence to vanish. And if someone out there decides to have a bit of fun with the remains of my digital remains, so be it. I won’t be in a position to care.

    But the passing of my former husband reminds me that we leave bits of ourselves behind. He was very creative and highly involved in all sorts of technology. His many friends were of similar mindset. I often come across some little video of or taken by Erich. There are so many images of and about him floating around that it becomes inevitable. I feel him hovering and chuckling.

  3. I usually don’t delve into an unknowable question or issue like you raise here, but this time, Dia, your post so caught my interest (touched my unknowable soul, really), that it triggered a need to write something. (I’m not really sure what I’ll be writing yet, but looking at a blank space in front of me usually brings out something that lies beneath my mind and heart’s surface.) Soooo, my intuitive response is this:

    From my reading obituaries occasionally – more of them lately as I am so much nearer my end than my beginning – I notice in a large majority of them that people obviously want to remember their deceased family member as having been both loved and loving while she or he lived. This always brings up this question; what’s the most important, powerful and lasting thing any of us can leave behind when we die. And my simple answer is: Love. Without love, a decent world does not exist.

    In my 40-year work as a psychotherapist, coupled with my own understanding of my own life, I found that every human being, including hardened criminals, has a deep need to be loved whether s/he has been loved or not. If the individual has been loved, then s/he in turn, for the most part, is capable of loving another. In other words, love almost always begets love with very few exceptions.

    Love that a person leaves behind is passed on to all with whom s/he came in contact with, but notably his or her family, especially the children who by the parents’ love for them will usually somehow carry it on into their relationships and work with others. If this for the most part is true, then I believe that what we do, including the writing that we place online, need best be cloaked with loving intent and compassion. If, that is, we not only want to contribute to the evolutionary force of love in the world, but also to be remembered as having done so after we die.

    The final question I have when reflecting about this subject – and my own death, whenever that occurs – is always the same: What will I leave behind?

    • “Without love, a decent world does not exist.”

      The simple truth of this took my breath away. I could never find the words for this but here they are now. Thanks.

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