Technology and death: More and more, there's a need to plan ahead

Listen to this story: 
July 28, 2011 - 7:00pm

Videographers might seem like an odd fit at a funeral.

But they're present at half of the services Jon Reichmuth plans. Reichmuth owns a funeral home in Elkhorn and is one of the only providers in the state to offer webcasting of funerals.

"Probably one of the first five we did was a younger man who passed away," Reichmuth said. "He was a local farmer, but also worked for (Hewlett-Packard) as a sales rep. And he had contacts all over the world. Last time I looked, there were over 150 viewings of that specific one, including some overseas.

"So a lot of his extended friends got to share in his memorial service."

Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

DEFINITION: What is digital estate planning?

According to Omaha lawyer Bill Lindsay, "digital estate planning" is preparing your online or computer-based assets in case of disability, inaccessibility or death. This includes accounts for social media, online banking, shopping and dating sites, file-sharing programs and personal blogs. It can also include tax returns filed electronically, e-books published, home security systems and much more.

Deceased Account

Wondering what your favorite websites' terms of service say about death? Check out Deceased Account to see the policies (or lack of) for 45 popular social media, file-sharing and commerce sites, including Facebook, eHarmony, flickr, Foursquare, MySpace and PayPal.

That's just one way technology is changing more traditional aspects of death. Others include plotting gravesites with GPS coordinates, embedding videos into headstones or showing digital slideshows at funerals.

But some people consider such melding of technology and mourning to be disrespectful.

"It's kind of a diminishment in some respect of the formality," said Daniel Wilson, a professor and chairman of psychiatry and a professor of anthropology at Creighton University.

Especially in terms of webcasting funerals.

"Clearly, webcasting a funeral is a whole other level beyond using new forms of media and communication to basically just memorialize people," he said. "I could certainly appreciate how people might find it disturbing, if not offensive."

The funerals are accessible only by a password-protected site. Reichmuth said the only negative comment he's heard was that streaming the service could lower the number of people who attended in person. But he said as families become more spread out, fewer people attend funerals anyway.

Technology is impacting not only how we react to death, but also how we plan for it.

750 million people actively use Facebook. More than 100 million have active PayPal accounts. 92 million American household engage in online banking.

But what happens to those accounts when their owners die?

Enter the relatively new field of digital estate planning.

"Well, a lot of our lives now involve the computer or various other technology systems, and so digital estate planning means planning for assets that you may have that are stored in some form of computer or other electronic technology," said Bill Lindsay, an attorney with Gross & Welch in Omaha. "And gaining access to those, which can be difficult if you have not done planning ahead of time."

As with standard estate planning, prepping your digital estate is all about assets. Michael Aiello, founder of Manhattan-based company LifeEnsured, has created a program that allows people to set post-mortem preferences for more than 60 social media and commerce websites.

"It's, first, I want to make sure my tangible assets are taken care of," Aiello said. "So these are things that have money in them, like PayPal, Amazon, eBay, that category."

After financial services are squared away, he said, people tend to focus on information-based services, like file-sharing sites, email or tax returns that are filed electronically. Finally, they turn to assets that are more intangible, such as social media sites or dating sites.

LifeEnsured's youngest client is 13; their oldest is 66. Aiello said the average user's age is in the mid-30s.

One of the big questions users face is whether to leave their social media accounts open. Especially when it comes to Facebook, profiles of deceased loved ones can be turned into digital memorials.

"And again, I think that's more of a, kind of a durable obituary, if you will," said Creighton's Wilson. "Where when we just had newspapers in the past, there were just a few notices, and they were formal, and that was pretty much it."

Digital estate planning can be useful not just in cases of death, but also for members of the military who might be away from home for years at a time, or in case of disability. In the end, digital estate planning is all about accessibility for family members when the primary account holder is unavailable.

Without planning ahead, Omaha lawyer Lindsay said, families can easily run into roadblocks.

"There have been some online companies that will not allow access."

And as Aiello with LifeEnsured pointed out, only 30 percent of social media services explicitly delineate their protocol in case of death. Many say nothing at all. (For a rundown of 45 different websites and their policies, or lack of, concerning the death of account holders, check out

How to avoid these complications?

"Well, one simple solution is to have a list of your passwords and login names," Lindsay said, "and anything else associated - some accounts now have a security question that may need to be answered."

He recommended storing that information in your safety deposit box or home safe and giving a trusted friend or family member access.

And include your digital assets when planning for your estate, whether that's your computer password, website domain names you own or any e-books you've published.

"Your family's going to have to deal with this, and that could be stressful, and that could be confusing, and not what they should be focusing their time on at that point," Aiello said. "And I think that really drives it for folks. So it's, let's relieve the burden on your family, let's keep you in control, and let's make sure what you want to have happen to your accounts happens."

In many ways, technology has made modern life richer, but it's also made life - and death - more complex. Without proper planning, family members are often left to guess at whether their favorite aunt would want her funeral webcasted, or if their cousin's Twitter account should be memorialized or merely shut down.



blog comments powered by Disqus