Facebook profiles become makeshift memorials

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Though Luis Pagan ’06, a 22-year-old senior from Providence, died while swimming off the coast of Mexico in January 2006, his profile on Facebook is still active, serving as a memorial for his friends who post written messages on his page’s “wall” even today.

“Sometimes I miss the third grade. I miss the recess. I miss the candy. I miss you,” wrote Rebecca Barlow in a Feb. 6 message on Pagan’s wall. “I saw some shooting stars the other day and thought of you.”

Facebook has allowed Barlow, who attended third to 12th grade with Pagan, to stay connected with her friends whom she was no longer in touch with on a daily basis. Now, it’s one way she has to remember a friend in death, as Barlow was unable to attend Pagan’s funeral or visit his gravesite.

“I know he’s dead, no longer physically able to read his wall posts or check his messages. Heck, the ‘no recent activities’ remind us of that every day,” Barlow said. “But like a gravestone covered in flowers or notes, Facebook is letting some of us grieve without having to be there.”

Officials at Facebook said they are aware of profiles like Pagan’s that have transformed into memorials and that they have a policy concerning them.

“Facebook notes accounts of deceased members and allows the profile to remain on the site for 30 days in which time friends can still post on the wall. After the 30 days, the profile is removed,” said Meredith Chin, a Facebook spokeswoman, in an e-mail to The Herald. Facebook did not respond to queries about how it learns of its members’ deaths.

But apparently, Facebook missed the profile of Pagan, who died over a year ago, and of Arin Adams ‘07.5, who died in October last year. Barlow is fine with that, saying that profiles of deceased members should not be removed.

“It may sound morbid to allow Facebook to have dead members, but they are my family, and I want to stay connected with them. What harm is it to the alive or the new members?” she said. “All (Pagan) has on his site is memories, and in the end … isn’t that all of what death comes down to … how you are remembered?”

“Facebook is a social network, and recognizing death and memorializing loved ones is a very effective and meaningful way for me, among many to grieve,” said Carla Doughty, a high school classmate of Pagan who has also posted on his wall. “Grief is a very important part of life. … To come together in a large group to accept and face death is meaningful.”

Roxanne Young, who also went to high school with Pagan, echoed Barlow’s feelings. “In Luis’ case, I am glad that his profile still exists. It helps to keep him in my consciousness. It reminds me that his spirit remains among us, even though his person is gone,” Young said. She suggested Facebook should change a deceased member’s profile status to “Memorial” and ask current users for their consent for a memorial account in case of their deaths, “morbid as that may be.”

Some students who did not know Pagan said they had mixed feelings about such memorials.

“I think it’s a good idea as memorial – it’s thoughtful,” said Lee Richter ’10. “But it’s also awkward because it’s so public.”

The decision “should be left up to the family,” said Ray Grant ’10.

Facebook is not the only site where people grieve the deceased online. According to an Apr. 27, 2006, New York Times article, MyDeathSpace.com has documented at least 116 people with profiles on MySpace, another social networking site, who have died.