Tweeting from beyond the grave – why sometimes it’s good not to talk

As the debate, and legal challenges, continue over who should have rights over a person’s Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts after death, the whole area of digital legacy is suddenly being thrust centre stage.

While it’s easy to see why stopping abuse and masquerading on accounts where the originator has passed on is an important area for legal review, another strand of digital legacy is now emerging – the idea of continuing to converse with the dead via their social media accounts.

Charlie Brooker dramatised this exact point in the Be Right Back episode of Black Mirror (Channel 4) where we saw a bereaved Martha keeping in touch with her dead partner, Ash, via a predictive software package. Soon, Ash is emailing, posting status updates and even telephoning Martha from beyond the grave, courtesy of his ‘social exhaust’.

The whole point of Black Mirror’s dystopian slant is that it’s not that futuristic – it could happen sooner than we think. The same week Be Right Back was screened, a new app, ‘LivesOn’, was announced which will apparently allow users to continue tweeting from beyond the grave using knowledge of the user’s online history to create an ongoing virtual character after death. The tagline is ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.’

Apps such as ‘LivesOn’ have been likened to a Ouija board or a séance, but I’d always thought, if you believe in such things, you’d actually be hoping to speak to an enduring spirit. With digital legacy, there’s no such pretence – you know it’s not real from the outset; it’s light from a dead star.

But what’s possibly more disconcerting, from a technology point of view, is that your inanimate avatar will, in all probability, unwittingly dispense unintended slights, criticisms and life-shattering announcements as it mashes together the algorithms of the past. Old messages may become mangled like an online translation service – ‘Leaving for home now. Love you baby’ from someone’s timeline may re-emerge from the void as ‘leaving you and setting up new home as having a baby with my lover.’ A historic message saying ‘Hitting the hay early. Hope you’re having a great night out with your mother’ could come back from the afterlife as ‘ It has to come out – I’ve been sleeping with your mother. She’s a real goer.’

Digital legacy in a broader context contends that the ability to look at the timeline of a decedent is the same as looking at old photos or videos. That may have some validity if the accounts are frozen, but not if they can live on, and not if anybody and everyone can view them. Surely the key advantage of being the direct benefactor of a digital legacy is the ability to hit the ‘delete account’ button?

In my novel A Matter of Life and Death Farren Mortimer makes his fortune by selling ideas to keep the memory of the departed alive, not by trying to pretend the dead are still here. In that context, conducting cyber chatter with cadavers looks more like a celebration of death than a celebration of life.

Some may argue that pretending to conduct conversations with the dearly departed is merely a coping mechanism, but to me it’s like Norman Bates keeping his mother in the fruit cellar. Sometimes it’s good not to talk….

What was that you said, Mother?

Attending your own funeral? Coming Soon.

Mark Twain may have had the opportunity, but it’s fair to say being able to attend your own funeral is not something that happens every day. Premature obituaries do happen in the case of mistaken identity and misreported deaths, but it’s relatively rare.

Twitter, of course, seems to be doing its best to despatch the still living to the great beyond, with rumours of the deaths of pop stars, film actors and politicians regularly reaching halfway round the world before the ‘mistake’ – for which read ‘spoof’ – is unmasked. Margaret Thatcher has already died ten times this year in the bubble of social media.

Attending your own funeral could be called a once in a lifetime experience, except, of course, you’ll be dead by the time the occasion arrives. What a waste of a day.

Undertakers have hit upon the perfect way of getting your money upfront by encouraging people to plan their own send off; after all, it’s your big day and you can’t always rely on others to get the small detail right. The funeral trades call it ‘pre-need’ planning, but they still ask for a deposit once you’ve got your perfect send off mapped out.

Do you want to be buried or cremated? Check. Limousine or horse drawn carriage? Check. Traditional casket or wicker basket? Check. Church or humanist service? Check. And that’s before you get on to music, memorials, venue for the reception, catering, free bar and whether to have donations instead of flowers.

Let’s face it, most weddings are easier to plan if you think about it, and at least if wedding arrangements go awry most participants will always have a second chance.

So, if a funeral is such a big occasion, and if you’ve put your heart and soul into planning it, why miss it? Have it before you die. We Brits appear to have abandoned the stiff upper lip when it comes to funerals anyway, so what’s the harm? If a funeral is, as the common parlance goes, ‘a celebration of life’ then pop that cork, get a cake baked, and stick the invites in the post – ‘what are you doing Saturday?’

And think, you get to hear the eulogies, maybe say a few words yourself, receive pats on the back, and nobody will dare interfere with your specially compiled music playlist. Funeral companies are definitely missing a trick here – they’d be effectively doubling their market overnight if they could persuade people to opt for two send offs instead of the traditional one.

‘Living Funeral Therapy’, where people attend their own funerals to get a fresh perspective on their lives, is already practiced in South Korea as an anti-suicide measure. Participants report a feeling of greater self-worth and renewed motivation.

Some details may need second thoughts though. Harry Secombe famously received a message from his fellow goon, Spike Milligan: `I hope you go before me because I don’t want you singing at my funeral.’ If you only die twice, that could be a bit of a problem.

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post UK website:

Spike and Harry – not on song for once…

Funerals Top Ten goes on and on and on…

Co-operative Funerals ran a ‘most popular songs played at funerals’ story this week – only 16 years after I first came up with the idea for them whilst at Communique PR.

Back in 1996 it was relatively rare to hear popular music tracks blaring out of crematoria and chapels, so we knew we were on to a winner with the story – we were right; it grabbed a lot of coverage.

While we repeated the top ten idea for the following five years, I don’t think anyone really expected it would be running nearly twenty years later.  Some would accuse the Co-op of a total lack of imagination in their annual recycling of this old story, but isn’t the main point that a funerals top ten is still ‘news’? – it chimes with the public’s understanding of bereavement now probably even more than it did back in the 1990s.

Having said that, I wonder how much of the Co-operative’s 2012 top ten is actually based on statistics ‘from 30,000 funerals’ – we, shall we say, tended to be more ‘creative’ in our compilations in order to get in more comedy value (I mean, has anyone ever actually heard ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ or ‘Knock on Wood’ at a funeral?)   Mind you, we made sure ‘My Way’ and ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ were always in there.

In writing AMOLAD I knew from the outset I wanted to use song titles that could be played at funerals for chapter headings.  I also wanted to avoid the over-obvious, so selected songs that had resonance to the action as well as being poignant and stirring in their own right. Not one of my chapter headings makes the current Co-operative chart.

Which songs would I have played at my own funeral? I think it best to just stick the AMOLAD playlist on random shuffle and see what pops up.

Check out the songs featured in the AMOLAD chapter headings here or listen to them on Spotify here.

Communique’s Co-op Funeral Top Ten, Daily Mail, 1999