CHICAGO — Death is a hard topic to chew over, but with a glass of beer and a plate of wings, the conversation comes easier.
This week in Chicago, Life Matters Media, a group focused on helping people with end-of-life decisions, hosted “Your Digital Afterlife” at Revolution Brewing during Craft Beer Week. The event narrowed in on one particular topic: What happens to your digital identity when you die, and what can you do to control it?
‘It’s funny that this is at a bar’
Interested and — perhaps more importantly — relaxed attendees filled the second floor of the restaurant, mingling among others who, like themselves, had lost someone in their lives. They even got a brewery tour beforehand.
It was a cheerful Act I, to be followed by a more somber, yet somehow comfortable, second act. The attendees, about 50 young and old, grabbed their plates, ordered their brews and sat, ready for an hour-long talk about how to prepare for the digital afterlife once they or their loved ones die.
“It’s funny that this is at a bar,” said Matt Dias, 25, a graduate of the University of Chicago who plans to attend Columbia University in New York this fall to study bioethics. “I think people are probably more comfortable once they’re in a more mellow position.”
Dias, a copy editor for voicesinbioethics.org, said he recently made his sister a “legacy contact” on Facebook, giving her ownership of his social media account in the event of his death.
“I remember talking to her. I said, “I’m choosing you to become my legacy contact,’ and I asked her, ‘Do you want me to be yours?’ She said, ‘I don’t even want to talk about that; I’m only 27 years old,'” Dias recounted.
Normalizing conversations about death was a major theme among both hosts and attendees Tuesday night. After their tour, and their mingling, the event began, and with it came an outpouring of information.
WGN-TV reporter Randi Belisomo, who is also the co-founder of Life Matters Media, took the stage first, thanking those in attendance. WBEZ digital content director Tim Akimoff then took the stage, accompanied by Ronette McCarthy, an attorney who counsels families on end-of-life issues.
Conveying a message
In their hour-long talk, Akimoff and McCarthy presented a slideshow and fielded questions from the crowd. They gave tips on protecting email, social media and other online accounts, and advised those in attendance on practical steps they could take to ensure their online assets don’t float into oblivion once they are no longer around to maintain them.
“One of our missions is to get people talking about this and thinking about it sooner, so at the time of some event, there’s not chaos and regret and all these things that come along with it,” said Mary Mulcahy, 51, co-founder of Life Matters Media and associate professor of hematology and oncology at Northwestern University. When Belisomo’s husband, Carlos, was diagnosed with colon cancer and eventually died from the disease, Mulcahy was the oncologist who took care of him.
“It was a couple of months later when Randi and I started running into each other at the same gym we go to, and we started talking about this, and she said to me, ‘How come you never told me Carlos was dying?’” Mulcahy recounted. “And I said, ‘I did.’ She said, ‘No, you said he was going to die. You never said he was dying.'”
A couple of days later she was dealing with another family at hospital who was “caught up in the minutiae of hospital care,” and when she went in and told them their mother was dying, she said everything changed.
“The way death and dying is dealt with in the media and in the doctor’s office and in all sorts of places doesn’t give it enough justice; it doesn’t give people the opportunity to deal with the fact their loved one is dying,” said Mulcahy. “There are a lot of things that could be done during that time other than just doctor’s appointments.”
Tuesday night’s event was a new dive into what the organization felt was an often overlooked topic of dying. There are steps to be taken to protect and delegate online accounts after death, and when Akimoff and McCarthy took the stage, they looked to convey that message in the most conversational way they could.
“It’s a morbid topic, but we often don’t think about death until it’s too late,” Akimoff, 41, said afterward. “You’re trying to convey something to someone who may think, ‘Good lord, I’m only 25, I don’t really need to think about this,’ but you just never know.”
Akimoff, with the legal expertise of McCarthy, ran through their tips.
First, start with the will, they said. Include passwords and any instructions regarding digital accounts in your will.
Be proactive: Make sure each digital property, whether it’s email, social media or otherwise is set up so in the event of death it’s “easier for people to handle.” Find out how many accounts you have, and what needs to be done for each one, whether through something like Facebook’s Legacy Contacts or Gmail’s Inactive Account Manager.
Some are harder than others. While Facebook has set up Legacy Contacts, Twitter, on the other hand, is more complex. Someone can have a deceased user’s Twitter account removed by submitting an official request. Twitter will email the submitter with instructions, which include a copy of the submitter’s identification as well as the deceased’s birth certificate.
Services are already out there: Digital death services already exist to help people manage their accounts and passwords. The Digital Beyond is a web site that aggregates news about digital death, and updates on what websites and social media outlets are doing. Afternote, emortal and Dead Man’s Switch act as digital asset and password managers.
All eggs in the same basket: Akimoff and McCarthy both stressed the importance of keeping all digital passwords in one place, and not being the only person who knows it.
“You can’t hold all that digital information yourself,” McCarthy said. She emphasized the importance of keeping passwords stored and accessible for someone else to use once you pass away. “Whatever mechanism you’re comfortable with, you have to do it,” she said.
‘You don’t have a choice whether you’re going to live or die’
“I think that in general, people are uncomfortable talking about death, at all. Period,” Dias had said before the event. When the talk concluded with about 15 minutes of questions and answers from the crowd, attendees remained comfortable, even candid, following the event.
“I think it was a great setting,” said Sheila Aird, a 52-year-old hospice nurse who had come along with her friend, Keith Mabrey.
Mabrey, a 58-year-old IT engineer, agreed. “It put me at ease,” he said.
“You don’t have a choice whether you’re going to live or die. You are going to die,” Mulcahy had said before the event. “Our goal is to make this a normal conversation.”
For some, the beer probably helped, too.
“It lubricates a lot, yes,” Mabrey said, laughing.