Social Networking Sites Offer Alternative Place To Mourn

When Wesleyan student Johanna Justin-Jinich was shot and killed Wednesday, her photo from her Facebook page accompanied several media accounts of the horrific news.

There was also more information about the 21-year-old student found in diary entries from her online LiveJournal account, some dating back years.

At a time when online social networks are more popular than ever, it raises the question about what happens with the lingering Web presence of those who have died.

In Justin-Jinich's case, her Facebook page was no longer available Friday and her LiveJournal page was blank. It was not known Friday whether the changes were the result of a request from her family.

Annie Ta, Facebook spokesperson, said that Facebook will change a person's profile to a "memorial state" once officials have been notified of a user's death and make it available only to "confirmed friends."

"In the memorial state, certain profile sections and features are hidden from view to protect the privacy of the departed," she wrote in an e-mail. "We encourage users to utilize groups and group discussions to mourn and remember the deceased."

Facebook, she said, "will of course respect the deceased's family's wishes to remove a profile from the site."

As for Justin-Jinich's page, Ta said she cannot give any details without the family's consent.

Tim Smith, spokesperson for LiveJournal, said Friday that it appeared that the settings for Justin-Jinich's page had been changed from public to private. That was most likely done by either friends or family who had access to her journal, he said.

The proliferation of online memorials has taken off in recent years. To some, the idea of maintaining the Web presence of a loved one has an unsettling quality.

Bob Thompson, who studies pop culture at Syracuse University, said that "as someone approaching 50," he was uneasy about the idea of online memorials. He found it especially strange that many messages posted on memorial sites are addressed directly to the deceased as if they were still alive.

He overcame those qualms, though, after joining a Facebook memorial group for a former student of his who had died.

"I think these social network sites are really useful for these kinds of things because in the end, no matter what one does at a memorial service — poems, flowers on the gravesite — this is all about the people who haven't died," he said. "Essentially, people are using social networks as a way to come to grips with [the death of a loved one], but in an extended way that funerals don't allow."