Just as modern technology has changed the way we interact with the world and our understanding of it, new technological solutions are also enhancing our legacy and our ability to rest in peace.

What is changing?

For funeral homes, the internet is disrupting the industry as online stores sell coffins and mourners arrange various types of memorials online, but funeral homes have begun adapting to the digital age with new services to memorialize the dead that better reflect the networked lifestyle of the deceased and their survivors. A digital sign can be customized for each funeral with videos and pictures of the deceased along with rich graphics and live feeds, and funerals can also be live webcasted or tweeted for long distance family and friends who could not make the trip. QR codes and microchips can be placed on grave markers, benches, or plaques to direct the curious to webpages with the deceased’s bio, pictures, videos, links, etc.

For surviving friends and family, the deceased’s online activity has become a significant concern in more ways than one. For years, mourners have created webpages or social media profiles of loved ones who have passed away, and Facebook alone has about 30 million accounts set as deceased. But what happens when these pages and profiles become outdated, archived, redesigned or given new privacy policies? What happens to the currency left in online accounts when passwords are not designated to the deceased’s heirs? Conversely, who can view the skeletons—of the deceased’s or their contacts’ skeletons shared in private messages—locked in digital closets when those passwords are found?  Who owns the data left behind, and who has the power to decide how it is used? Each social network and email service has its own policies. Some will send family the digital files of their profile and activity before deleting them while others retain all files but archive the profile to act as a digital tombstone.

For those planning for their deaths, companies are offering virtual services that could solve some of these dilemmas. If I Die is a Facebook app that posthumously posts messages to friends on certain dates after a profile has been designated deceased, and another company sends posthumous emails so the dead can always have the last word. Legacy Locker is a web service that stores online accounts and passwords to be given to pre-designated family members or friends. While offering this secure solution to ensure the safe delivery of data only to the right people is a great idea, it could also provide cybercriminals with a large target to hack and steal readymade identities. Legacy Organizer is an iPhone app that allows the user to create a personal record of their life and legacy as they want to be remembered complete with music, videos, life defining events, memoir, final farewell, and a will. LifeNaut is an online service that takes all the same information and plugs it into an artificial intelligence with an avatar that acts for the deceased. Other researchers are attempting to create lifelike robots with AIs based on an individual’s data to bring the dead virtually back to life. Such a robot could give that individual’s eulogy at their own funeral or provide company to spouses in need.

Why is this important?

Much of our lasting legacy is increasingly centered on our online activity shared with the rest of the internet community and housed in digital databases, and everyone with online activity will have to give greater thought to their digital assets and the data housed in their many online accounts as well as the online accounts of their contacts. How do users want these accounts to be cared for when they are gone? Who should be the executor of your online accounts, and how can your executor access these accounts?

Deceased profiles are already lengthening the mourning periods for many survivors who see the deceased’s profile image on their own accounts. Some psychologists say this may be healthy, but how much longer will that mourning period last if avatars and robots can mimic a deceased person’s personality with the ability for mourners to seemingly interact with the deceased? The idea of digital resurrection carries with it many issues that could improve society with better coping mechanisms and information analysis while also presenting a variety of issues for legal and social changes. Will people wish to converse with their great grandparents’ AI? Could we see a modern version of the ancient practice of ancestor worship? Could that make society wiser or perpetuate familial mistakes? As such technologies allow our loved ones to overstay their lives, will we begin to see a new emotion arise—one of mourning for a loved one mixed with joy and affection toward a machine housing that loved one’s digital resurrection?

Another important question for those thinking about their legacy, how long should your data last? No doubt new services will appear that could use the data in morbid or distasteful ways. Many old grave markers are defaced around the world. Could a deceased person’s data be used to deface their memory, whether 10 or 200 years from now?

While a number of concerns surround the rise of modern memorials, they also offer more people the chance to be remembered for posterity. These digital legacies might maintain accurate records for longer periods than ever before assuming the technology remains capable of accessing and organizing our data in a useful manner for later generations. The data should provide historians with greater insight into the lives of common people of a given era, and the potential immortality of our digital legacies could even help society, or at least the online community, maintain a cultural and historical foundation.

By Dennis Draeger

About the author:

Dennis Draeger, a Senior Research Associate with Shaping Tomorrow, is a global citizen currently based in New Zealand. After finishing his master’s in Futures Studies at University of Houston, his foresight consulting portfolio has grown to include work with SMEs, government agencies, and global corporations while partnering with Shaping Tomorrow, Research for Tomorrow Today and Next Corporation. He now heads up Aiglatson Foresight Research.