Monday, March 9, 2015

My Plan For My Life After Death

Jenny Chang/BuzzFeed

Like one of those depressing life-insurance commercials on daytime TV, Facebook is now urging people to consider their own mortality by imploring them to choose a "legacy contact" to manage their page in the event of their death. Update settings and ponder that you could very well get hit by a bus tomorrow! Or that your sister is ill, and getting worse, and that you should probably update your parents' accounts with your information. That you are in a few secret Facebook groups your spouse might feel weird about. Messenger logs seem to be hidden from the legacy contact, so that person will only be dealing with outward-facing content and not private conversations.

All of this is certainly a step beyond jotting down your roommate as an emergency contact for work, but I have been considering the long tail of unflattering, upsetting, and humiliating information that will follow my star as it falls from the sky for many years now — way before Facebook ever existed. I have a deal with two of my best friends that in the event of my death, the other two are to get to my house as soon as possible and remove the items I've told them about, things that I won’t want my family to find. I will, in turn, do the same for them.

I realize the functional need for a Facebook legacy contact. It is terrible when someone close to you dies; you want to preserve everything you can about who they were — up until that very last post or comment you didn't know would be the last one. It's reasonable and a better user experience to help people easily manage, in a raw time, a very real and public thing through which many friends and family communicate almost exclusively. It's merciful to have someone in charge of particular tasks when a loved one passes, and Facebook has replaced that big spiral book address book my mom still whips out when hard family news must be spread. That person's page, frozen in time, can be heartbreaking or comforting to look at, depending on the day. Turning it into a memorial page or doing anything else to ease the grief and bring together those left behind is a job that has to fall to someone, just like someone needs to be in charge of ordering the cold cuts for after the funeral.

Still, I suggest recruiting some physical first responders. People who've loved you through everything they've discovered about you during life, and who will love you no matter what they find out after you're gone. Their job is to help keep the attention on who you were to your family, to delay or blunt or even trash the evidence of the other yous that belonged only to you — iterations that maybe they won't even fully discover until they begin their strange duty and open that first twine-tied box in the back of the closet.

I'm a writer, so I have made it more arduous for them by writing down all of my secrets and failings and embarrassing hopes and desires in a tower of journals and notebooks. These are unfiltered dumps of my (often foolish and self-absorbed) heart. I can see in my scrawled handwriting the urgency with which I was trying to turn my youthful narcissism into an important story of a life, but no one else could possibly understand the context, much less really care. Opening to a random page recently, I was both horrified and instantly bored to death. They aren't meant for anyone else's eyes, so my friends have directions to set all that on fire.

Then there's Gmail. There are a million emails documenting breakups, hookups, divorces, proof of happiness with people long gone, struggles with people now adored, things confessed that only two people in the world know. I have multiple accounts, where I've tried to cull past relationships into safe-deposit boxes: Shaunamiller666@gmail, shaunapersonal123@gmail, maggieloveshopey@yahoo (you know that one's a doozy), shaunadontreadthis@gmail. My buddies have the keys to those accounts, hidden in my main account in a folder marked "coupons."

There are a few tools for handling "Gmail after death." But I don't know how my friends will distribute the thousands of heart-to-heart chat threads with all of my dearest friends and partners, or what they will delete to protect the feelings of the living. Will they print out for my wife the first email exchange we ever had, about a silly song? Forward it to her so she can play the MP3 attached? Will they clean things up enough that there is some repository of my communications that my family could occasionally log in to and wade around in my history, my life, our lives together? Will anyone even want that, or am I overestimating the value of what is largely a day-to-day record of mundanities? I know I’m underestimating what a pain in the ass that would be; right now, I have 25,315 unread emails in one account alone.

The nude photos: A cursory inventory reveals that there are...more than I thought, scattered over many formats. Was I really buck naked in the MLK Library for an "art shoot"? But these Terry Richardson-esque shots against a long-forgotten fuchsia apartment wall are actually beautiful. We were beautiful. There are some things in there, though, that are not appropriate for various sets of eyes. I trust their judgment on how to distribute that evidence. The creeps might keep them all for all I'll know.

I know it sounds as if this mission might be an oddly celebratory event. I dream this scenario as a bonding experience for them, like something out of The Big Chill . I dream this because I'm sure it will, in fact, be horribly painful, though I know they will comfort each other. When I put myself on the other end of the equation, however, picking through the most intimate leftovers of my best friends’ lives, a rock materializes in my stomach. Imaging a world where they are gone forever makes me feel so bereft I can’t linger there for long. This has been our pact for as long as I can remember, mostly with the half-serious bravado of youth and good health. One day, it will become awfully real. We will do what’s been asked through our own grief. But there is fear there too. What will I find out that I might not want to know? How will it feel to keep secrets that they couldn’t tell me in life?

Taking on their Facebook pages seems so banal — even annoying in light of these other matters. In fact, though, it might turn out to be a heavier load than I can handle. If Facebook is good for anything, it’s as a ticker tape of friends’ feelings and interests in real time, with comment threads providing space for conversations and arguments people used to have in person. Reading others’ memorialized pages, there’s always a point where that signal goes dead and other voices take over, typing their grief and love into little boxes, speaking to their departed friends as if they can still hear or respond. The interface doesn’t change, but the heartbeats of the timelines go flat. The pages stay largely silent until birthdays or death anniversaries come around, then roar to life — a life going on without them. To be in charge of managing those annual public outpourings seems more difficult than collecting the tangible things, when I can steal a T-shirt that will smell like them for a while. Maybe I am not the right choice for a legacy contact.

But I will toss their porn — and help with the cold cuts.

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