Every year, we welcome the New Year with the proverbial yet fatalistic saying, “On Rosh HaShanah, it is written. On Yom Kippur, it is sealed.”
This year, as these two sentences come to mind once again, I think about a more modern page that we write and edit and then seal with an inadvertent yet morbid permanence — the Facebook profile.
A few weeks ago, I found out through the viral social networking Web site, Facebook.com, that a 22-year-old sorority sister of mine named Lindsey Goldhagen had died of an infection, after fighting through what we all had thought was a successful battle with liver cancer. I didn’t know her well — she was a freshman when I was a senior at Penn — but the death of such a vibrant young woman who was ready to offer so much to the world really hit home.
As soon as the news surfaced in the realms of Phi Sigma Sigma e-mail listservs and Facebook “News Feed” streams, friends of Goldhagen immediately began posting flurries of “wall” notes onto her profile page — no, not notes to her family, but messages directly to her.
When we leave this world, we are survived not only by our closest family and friends, but also by our Facebook accounts — a Web interface that today’s 20- and 30-somethings spend hours with every day.
“Linds, you were a great inspiration to more people than you could possibly ever imagine, myself included,” says one post to Goldhagen’s wall. “Your courage and ambition are things that I definitely admired in you. You’ll be greatly missed. Rest in Peace.”
Others share personal jokes, and went so far as to wish her an amazing time up there, in that unknown place with God.
“We’ll miss your crazy antics!” another friend writes. “I hope you are somewhere that has unlimited amounts of cheese and [frozen yogurt] at your disposal.”
And some notes contain a more generic message, like “Best of luck in the next life.”
In addition to the endless stream of wall posts that appeared on Goldhagen’s Facebook page, one of her closest friends — Ashley Prial — uploaded nearly 200 photos that the 22-year-old had left behind. And instantly, there Lindsey was, popping up on people’s News Feeds again, dancing and laughing with her sorority sisters like nothing ever happened.
Only three weeks before, Goldhagen had visited Prial and left 300 photos and other documents on her friend’s computer. And until Aug. 30, Prial had no idea what to do with the pictures.
“When she died, it clicked. I think she left them on my computer for me to remember her by,” Prial said. “I posted them to Facebook for all her friends to remember how fabulous Lindsey Goldhagen was and also, how fortunate we all were to have been a part of her fabulous life.”
This type of continued, after-death interaction can make social-networking mediums like Facebook effective coping mechanisms for friends and family in a time of loss, experts agree.
“When people post things and share things and write articles it is for the writer as well as the receiver. And that is therapeutic,” said Rabbi Shea Hecht, a relationship counselor in the Crown Heights Jewish community.
Facebook itself jumped on board with the idea of remembrance, and recently instituted a profile “memorializing” policy that protects the privacy and sanctity of the late user.
“Memorializing the account removes certain more sensitive information like status updates and restricts profile access to confirmed friends only,” read Facebook’s official user terms.
The statement goes on to explain that Facebook will not provide the deceased user’s log-in information to anyone, though administrators can shut down some accounts entirely, at the requests of close family members.
“Facebook has been pretty much in the vanguard in the area of transmission of digital assets, in at least providing a clear and accessible way for relatives to ask for profiles to be ‘memorialized’ after death,” blogged Sheffield University law professor Lilian Edwards, who spoke about Facebook and death at Hong Kong University’s Digital Convergence conference this summer. Edwards also encourages Web site users to leave behind all usernames and passwords in their wills or in Internet databases like LegacyLocker, giving loved ones the opportunity to dismantle or change profiles as they see fit.
Otherwise, our Facebook, Twitter and Google accounts will live on, whether we like it or not, providing a window into our lives even after death.
But according to Rabbi Hecht, that is not necessarily a bad thing, because kabbalah teaches us that the soul is no longer limited to a single body after death.
“If I do a mitzvah for your soul, your soul gets an elevation and if I express something to your soul, I think there is something to it as well,” he said.
As for Goldhagen’s friends, writing on her Facebook wall is a continued source of comfort, whether or not they believe in the intricacies of kabbalah.
“I don’t really know why I write to her,” Prial said. “Subconsciously, when I write on her wall, it feels like I’m talking to her. I believe she’s up in heaven, and she can see what I write to her.
“And in some ways, it keeps her with me.”
Sharon Udasin is a staff writer at the paper.