Where Do We Go When We Die?

The Wall Street Journal ran a story last weekend that raises a question of what happens to our electronic soul when we’re gone.   It pinpoints an issue numerous people have probably wondered about briefly but then dismissed as they’ve gone on with our temporal existence.

It has never been easier to preserve a person’s day-to-day existence than it is now.  Until that person dies.  All of the Facebooking, twittering, e-mailing, Flickring, and so forth that is so much a part of contemporary life-sharing—-all of the things that we use every day that capture and express what is meaningful to each of us—will not necessarily remain a legacy to be discovered by descendants wanting to learn about us on ancestry.com or its successors.

The Journal’s Geoffrey A. Fowler recounts the story of a family grieving for the loss of their 16-year old daughter who had various internet accounts “that were her lifeline when illness isolated her at home.”  But none of the internet sites she used would give her family her passwords so they could retrieve her thoughts, photos, and messages.  Violation of her privacy, they said, although one has to wonder how much privacy extends beyond life. People do say things on the internet to themselves or to others that they don’t want a wider audience such as parents, spouses, children, or others to know.  Shouldn’t those things remain the secrets the person wanted them to be?

But on the other side is the idea that every life is significant, a philosophy that is behind year after year of conflicts in the political world.  And if every life is significant, shouldn’t the record of that significance be complete? Shouldn’t our humanity be our story?  Shouldn’t there be more to us than a sanitized recounting?  We are who we are and each of us IS significant in some way or another, on some scale or another.  If life is significant and if the means exist to record and preserve our own record of it, warts and all, shouldn’t that record be electronically eternal because our significance is not ours alone to measure–as our lawmakers keep finding new ways to state every year?

Look at a picture of your great grandparents.  What do you really know about them other than the basic, sterile genealogical records?   Too bad they can’t speak to you of their lives and their experiences.  But we can speak to our great-grandchildren because of all of the electronic systems into which we record those things today. You don’t have to be a journalist to be a journal-ist.


Present law protects your privacy and leaves your great grandchildren with nothing more than a picture. And maybe not even that because so much of our photographic record is now stored in the cloud or something.

Fowler’s article notes Yahoo has a provision in its agreement saying, “Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.”  Your electronic soul that you put into Yahoo entry by entry disappears.

It is not just those of us who make our livings with intellectual efforts that preserve history through our thoughts and interpretations who must realize our tracks will be electronically washed away after our fingers are no longer on our keyboards. It’s all of us who love our families and don’t want their recorded spirits to be wiped out by current laws that care not for the significance of their lives.

Life remains significant even when we are done living it.  Technology provides the means to preserve that significance.  Maybe it’s time the privacy laws recognize the humanity we are writing into the internet every day.  Perhaps our law-givers who are so consumed with numbers and dogma should be reminded of their, and our, humanity and that there can be a sanctity of life after death as much as there is a sanctity of life before birth.

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