My Dead Aunt Is on Facebook

How can I defriend her digital memorial?

Several years ago, my Aunt Cathy’s neighbor in Washington D.C. noticed a small lump—I think it was on Cathy’s neck. She went and got it checked out right away and got the bad news: lymphoma. But Cathy was a strong, otherwise impeccably healthy woman of the type who refused to drive if she could walk or bike, and she managed to put up a remarkably good fight. The cancer went into remission.

Then in the second half of 2010, she found out she had leukemia, a disease that frequently follows a successful battle against lymphoma. And in August of this year, just two days after her 62nd birthday, Cathy died, leaving behind a husband, two adopted teenage kids … and a Facebook page.

I’m pretty sure that Cathy never gave two licks about Facebook until fairly close to the end. After all, when would she have had the time?

When she wasn’t taking her kids to the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, or a dude ranch out west, or campaigning for and serving as the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for her area (the stage at the brand-new community center, which never would have been built without her, is named “The Fiorillo Stage”), or volunteering for the Latin American Parents Association, Cathy was a foster parent for newborn babies. 23 newborn babies.

Not exactly a lot of room for digital time-wasting. No Farmville for Cathy.

She actually signed up for her Facebook account in 2009, the year before her second diagnosis. Maybe it was to check up on one of her kids. Who knows? But she didn’t actively use it until late in 2010, when one of her first status updates was an ominous check-in: “Cathy was at Johns Hopkins Hospital, December 4, 2010.”

From there, as her white blood count grew, so did her list of friends. Eventually, amid chemotherapy treatments and bone marrow transplants, she wound up at a live-in care facility at Johns Hopkins. Her Facebook account and iPad must have made that all seem just a little bit less like the prison that it was.

I didn’t realize that Cathy was even on Facebook until mid-August, when she friended me—just two weeks before her death. I was quick to accept the request, of course, but that was about the extent of our Facebook communication. It’s hard enough to know what to say to a dying person, let alone knowing how to say it on Facebook.

Since Cathy died on August 31st, her page has been relatively quiet. There have been a handful of RIPs and electronic eulogies. There’s a belated birthday wish from someone who apparently didn’t know the sad news. One friend even checked in at the capital’s Annunciation Church—with Cathy!—the Sunday after her death. I guess they were together in spirit.

Several times, Cathy’s photo has popped up at or near the top of the friends list on the left side of my page. Occasionally, I check her page to see if anyone has posted anything new. Recently, there was some new spam: “I just ordered an Ipaddddd!!! and didnt have to pay. hurry Cathy before everyone else takes them!” I could swear that she once appeared as available on Facebook chat.

Frankly, I think that when someone dies, so should their Facebook page. The grieving process doesn’t need Facebook, especially not with its new Timeline feature rolling out, which will inevitably lead to even more morbid reminders of the dead. Facebook disagrees, and even has a “memorializing” option.

Of course, you might tell me that if I don’t like seeing my dead aunt on Facebook, I should just defriend her. Sure, that’s easy to say. And I’ve nearly clicked on that link a half dozen times. But I just can’t bring myself to do it.