"One small fact: You are going to die," Death says in the opening of The Book Thief. "Despite every effort, no one lives forever." If you've come to terms with that (or have at least thought of death at one time or another), perhaps you've prepared for the inevitable by getting insured, saving up for those you're leaving behind and writing up a last will and testament. These days, though, you also need to decide what will happen to your online life after death. What can you do to prepare for it, and what can you do to help if someone close to you passes away?
HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE INEVITABLE, DIGITALLY
Appoint a digital executor
Your family or closest friends will be able to manage your online presence and shut down your accounts easily if they have your passwords. Question is, are you really willing to compromise your privacy and security? Even if they're not the type to snoop on you, there's always a chance that the security details you give out might get lost, stolen or hacked. Rather than giving your loved ones copies of your usernames and passwords, you can talk to your lawyer about appointing a digital executor who'll get all of them if something unfortunate does happen.
Use a password aggregator/service that you can update throughout your life, or keep a handwritten list in a fireproof vault
Since it'll be hard keeping a login list up to date if it's with a lawyer, you can sign up for a secure service that lets you tweak it when you need to. That way, your attorney will only need to possess a master password to give your digital executor. You could choose a password manager like LastPass, sign up for a separate cloud storage account or look up one of the services that offer to keep your credentials under virtual lock and key for this very purpose -- just make sure it can be trusted. (As for me, I personally keep a handwritten list of logins to my most important accounts in a fireproof, heavy-duty safe.)
Check if the website or service you're using has a feature that nukes your accounts for you
Google's Inactive Account Manager is probably the best example for this. The knowledge that there are millions around the world who've signed up for accounts -- millions who will eventually pass away -- led Mountain View to launch the product. This service, which can be used to determine the fate of your Google+, Blogger, Drive, Gmail, Picasa Web Albums, Google Voice and YouTube accounts, prompts you to a set a "deadline" for yourself.
If the date you've specified is approaching and you haven't accessed your account for quite some time, it nudges you with a text message. Past the deadline, the manager will share your photos, video clips or emails to the contacts you've specified (though it can also delete your accounts) if it doesn't get word back that you've just been too busy to log in.
HOW TO HANDLE A LOVED ONE'S ACCOUNTS
Social networks only made it big fairly recently, and Google didn't own most of people's virtual lives back in the day. Many people who've already passed likely never left instructions on what to do with their online presence or shared their passwords with friends and family. If you're in charge of securing or deleting the accounts of a loved one who didn't leave specific instructions, we hope the list below at least makes the process easier.
You have two choices when it comes to Facebook: You can either ask the company to delete your loved one's account, or have your relative's profile "memorialized." When an account is memorialized, nobody will be able to access it anymore, though friends can still post to the page's wall whenever they want. The social network previously made memorialized users visible to their friends only, but now the company has decided to respect their wishes and maintain their privacy settings even after death. Plus, friends of those who've passed can now request a "Look Back" video of the deceased.
Facebook launched this feature back in 2009, when one of its early employees died in a bike accident. Take note that you can only apply for an account's memorialization if you can verify that you're a relative of the deceased; you need to provide proof of death, such as an obituary or a certificate. More importantly, the process can't be undone, so keep that in mind if someone in your family likes logging into that account as a way to cope.
If your relative never had the chance to use the Inactive Account Manager, you still might be able to get into their account if you go through Google's verification process. We say "might," because Mountain View can't promise to grant your request; if you pass, you'll get access to the account, including its emails, YouTube videos and Google Play profile. The process is a bit troublesome and surprisingly low-tech for a company such as Google, though, since it entails sending in a copy of your ID and your relative's death certificate (among other things) via fax or snail mail.
The microblogging website, unfortunately, doesn't have an option similar to Facebook's memorialization. You'll have no choice but to contact the company directly along with a copy of your IDs and a death certificate in order to shut down an account. Instagram and LinkedIn have similar processes, and we'll bet it's the same for lesser-known social networks, as well.
Outlook and Yahoo Mail
Unlike Google, which at least promises to look into giving you the right to log into your loved ones' emails, Microsoft and Yahoo firmly state that they will not share anyone's credentials, though they will close a user's account upon request. Microsoft does have a Next of Kin service, though, which sends you a copy of all your relative's emails saved to a DVD if you can provide proof of kinship and proof of your loved one's death.
This should be easy to deal with, so long as your relative left behind a computer linked to the cloud storage service. In the event that the option doesn't exist, you can attempt to ask the company to let you into the account, though Dropbox doesn't guarantee approval.
Apple, sadly, has a "No Right of Survivorship" clause included in its Terms of Service. According to that clause, accounts are non-transferable, and all you can do is close the account of someone who has passed away by contacting iCloud support.
WHY ACCOUNTS SHOULD BE CLOSED AND WHY YOU SHOULD TAKE INITIATIVE
We wouldn't blame you if you'd rather not think about death at this point in time. But doing what you can while you can still decide for yourself makes it easier for anyone you leave behind. As you can see, it won't be easy for relatives to request entry to your accounts or to ask for their deletion. By making sure your accounts are deleted instead of letting them languish away, you're not only giving your family closure, you're also preventing identity thieves from impersonating you long after you're gone.
[Image credit: Shutterstock / Casper1774 Studio (last will and testament), Getty Images (vault), Alamy (Facebook)]