Shortly after Your Digital Afterlife went to press in October my grandmother passed away at 83. I was fortunate to spend much of her final week at her bedside. In the days that followed her passing I experienced digital legacy first hand. So in the spirit of our book, and in her memory, allow me to share those with you.
As we were preparing for Grandma’s funeral my Mother stopped by my childhood bedroom, in which I had set up a makeshift office for the week. She said, “Now there’s one person who didn’t have a digital legacy to worry about.” I thought for a moment, suspecting she was correct, but then glanced down at my computer screen and responded, “Have you been on Facebook today?”
It occurred to me that the my wall and those of several family members contained an outpouring of support from friends. Many of the people who never even knew my Grandmother. Facebook was where I had turned the previous evening to tell my friends of the sad news. Their support was unbelievably valuable to me and, at least in some small way, a part of my Grandmother’s legacy. I have to wonder if Facebook posts and emails will someday become the replacement for cards and flowers. I suspect that we’ll have both and that both will be equally as meaningful in the grieving process. I know it was for me.
Later that day we began preparing photos to submit to the funeral home for a tribute slide show. Mom pulled out several boxes of photos and we began to go through them. It was a great trip down memory lane and when it was finished I said “I’ve got more.” I opened up iPhoto and began to look through photos from Grandma’s birthday party, just three weeks earlier, and from countless other family events. My sister looked through Facebook at the same time. We compiled the photos into a new album and I fetched a USB drive that we could put them on and send to the funeral home. I also took a moment to teach my aunt how to email photos from her BlackBerry and she contributed a few. Meanwhile my Mother found a printed photo of my Grandmother and her brothers and sisters and said, “Evan, you took this one.” Not finding it on my MacBook I found a book of old CD-R discs and pulled out one labeled “Backup Spring 2003.” I didn’t find the photo she mentioned, in fact I never did, but I did find several others that we added to the album. As I placed the files on the USB drive, I started to think about how we compiled all of these photos. Some of them came from my hard drive, others from Facebook, CDs and even a mobile phone.
For someone who barely understood what we were doing on “that computer” all of the time, we compiled an impressive set of digital memories. And if it wasn’t for the need to submit photos for this slide show, they may have never come together in one place. I’ve opened that iPhoto album several times since that day and it’s availability to me at all times right here on my laptop is comforting. It’s a place I can go to remember and honor her.
So this post is for you, Grandma. While you didn’t have any digital things of your own, our photos and messages are a very important part of your legacy. We treasure them deeply and I hope that others realize the importance of their digital things through this story.
In some ways electronic tools have help us organize and become more efficient but in so many ways, it’s simply not as easy as bringing a shoebox full of images to the memorial service.
That said, the reach of our legacy is much broader more comprehensively documented. Finding a way to gather all that I’ve touched on the inter-tubes and other electronic media must become part of our historic routine.
I went through a similar thing in 2009 when my father died suddenly (the first family member for me). Among the sadness and tears we took the trip down memory lane too which was fascinating, as we delved through fantastic shots from his navy days during WWII, anzac marches and more recent, some gathered from old black and white photos that had to be scanned, to digital cameras, CDs, iphoto and of course the phone pics – all to create our slideshow for the service. Now my mum at 92 has a pic on fb wearing dad’s medals on Anzac day 2010. fantastic technology
I just experienced this also with the death of my 93 year old grandfather 3 weeks ago.
Facebook became an immediate way to connect with family and share images and thoughts. Images that we had not seen before. Expressions in moments that we did not take part in. What happiness it brought us all, feeling closer to him than ever. I take great comfort in being able to access his obituary online and read it when ever I want.
He always wanted to know what “cyberspace” was and well now, he does.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It’s always great to hear from others who have experience similar things.
I remember when Grandma saw my uncle on video chat once, it was her only experience with the Internet. I think she would have liked Facebook. She always wanted to know everything that was going on in the community.
Thanks again for sharing.
I first experienced this in 1975, when my dad passed away. As a leading edge computer engineering practitioner at that time for a decade already, I recalled again the fundamental ideas in the book of “The Computer and the Brain” authored by the inventor of the computer, and I could not resist the self-blame. I should have worked on developing digitized solutions for saving people’s consciousness and apply them for those important for me – I thought.
Evan, clearly you and John Romano have struck a chord with your readers and event participants at SXSW, perhaps even bigger than we presently know. Evan Carroll’s book, “Your Digital Afterlife”, was just as thought provoking. It feels to me that you and your fellow panelists are on the leading edge of the future of grief counseling just as much as the direction of aggregating one’s digital assets. The other comments all have a common theme, that being the therapeutic value of people immediately collecting themselves on-line after a loved one’s passing. If home and work are the first two “places”, and, as Howard Schultz claims, that Starbucks is the leading candidate to become “the third place”, then perhaps you are redefining “the fourth, and final resting place of one’s life story”, which seems to be moving into cyberspace from a funeral home or a cemetery. If so, there could be major implications for the future of these industries.