Facebook explains what happens to your account when you die

An Illustration of Facebook logo, on May 9, 2016. Facebook won a court case in China against Zhongshan Pearl River Drink Factory for using the name face book. (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

Sharing our thoughts and photos on social media sites has become a daily part of our lives, but what happens to your Facebook account when you die? 

The tech firm said it tries to prioritise the privacy and wishes of the deceased, but doing so isn't always easy. 

"These questions – how to weigh survivors' competing interests, determine the wishes of the deceased, and protect the privacy of third parties – have been some of the toughest we've confronted, and we still don't have all the answers," wrote Monika Bickert, Facebook's director of global policy management. 

The post by Bickert was part of the company's "Hard Questions" series. 

Facebook allows users to choose "legacy contacts" to manage their account when they die. Users do so under the account's settings, but they can also tell Facebook they want the account to be permanently deleted after they die. The company also stops sending birthday reminders to loved ones. 

But Facebook has more than 2 billion users, and not everyone leaves behind a digital will. The default option is to leave the account as it is and memorialize it by adding the word "remembering" next to the person's name. 

One parent might want to delete an account while another might want an account memorialized. A father who loses a son to suicide, for example, might want to see private messages exchanged on the teenager's account. 

And that's where Facebook says answering these questions gets tricky. 

"As natural as it might seem to provide those messages to the father, we also have to consider that the people who exchanged messages with the son likely expected those messages would remain private," Bickert wrote. 

The company generally can't turn over these messages without affecting the privacy of survivors, she said. 

For Bickert, who lost her husband to cancer last year, the issue hits close to home. She still texted him after his death, but she would also cry every time she would received emails or notifications from retailers that reminded her of her husband. 

"Even when we know perfectly and can act consistently with the wishes of the deceased and their loved ones, we know our actions will be of limited comfort," she wrote. "As I'm learning from my own experience, grief doesn't recede quickly or quietly." — San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service

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