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So my wife and I were getting our wills done the other day and we were talking about password sharing. Obviously there are some mechanics when someone dies around shutting down email accounts, moving business and financial accounts into different names and the like.

The one thing that I started to think about was my Stack Exchange account.

Is there a process by which someone can notify the community that a given user has died, can that community flag that user account accordingly, and perhaps even more importantly does it matter?

For older questions, the user's answer is likely to stay the same unless some new scientific information comes to hand, but certainly any active answers, against which comments are being received, would also have no updates applied against them.

While I can see that this could be seen as vacating the field so to speak, is it important for the community to know why this has happened, and how would it be flagged as such? To date, I've never seen an account with some form of deceased flag but I can see a case where this might be useful to a moderator when changes are being requested on a given question or answer and there is no further input from the OP, especially on older questions. It might trigger a different process for example if a user is not capable of responding, rather than merely inactive.

Of course, the follow up question is that if there isn't such a mechanism, should we consider one?

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    $\begingroup$ There are users whose postings are really good but which suddenly stopped (e.g. OMG Ponies. I rather wonder what happened - but it's at least nice to know their reputation keeps going up, even if they haven't been on the site for five years. From that standpoint SO can be kind of an odd place - we interact with names or handles we know but who we almost certainly will never meet. We speak of "community" but it's a community of strangers. Kind of the Geek Foreign Legion. :-} $\endgroup$ – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Jul 25 '19 at 0:04
  • $\begingroup$ It's a good question, and one I've wondered about too. Unfortunately, verification is an issue. It's rare but...several years ago my spouse was very active in an online comics group and became friends with a woman there. Then her husband came on to say she had been in a car accident and passed away. The community was devastated, held online memorials for her, and even organized a card or something to send to her husband. (more) $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Aug 1 '19 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ After several weeks of this, they discovered there was no husband. The woman was a man, very much alive, who simply tired of the community but, instead of just saying goodbye and never talking to them again, he decided to fake his own death (of his fake persona). Horrible and cruel and unforgivable. But it's not the only time some asshat has done this. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Aug 1 '19 at 16:07
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As you might have imagined, this has been discussed before, on Meta Stack Exchange. I think I agree with the collective conclusions of that discussion, namely:

  • It's quite hard to verify that a person has actually died.
  • Even if the death can be verified, it's not always clear what the person would want done regarding their posts and account.
  • If a person's loved ones do know that the person wanted something done with their account and have the credentials to access it (and I'm talking about some sort of memorial in the About Me section), that's totally fine. I know of at least one case on the network where that happened for a prolific user who sadly passed away after being highly active on one particular community.

I'll add my own point, which is that folks leave communities or become inactive for periods of time for a variety of reasons: personal developments, changes in employment, boredom, or, yes, death. I think it's quite important that we not pry into why this happens1, for reasons of privacy and decency. It's really not our business.

I can see that it might be helpful for us to know that a user isn't going to respond to comments or new answers. However, determining that is really hard, and the only people who can make that clear are the person's loved ones, if they have access to the account. And even then - well, it seems to me that a death should not be publicly displayed. If you really want to see if a user is likely to respond to a poke, feel free to check the About Me field in their profile to see if they've been inactive.


1 . . . with the exception of inactivity of diamond moderators, for security reasons, and I think that that information should still be kept between the moderator and SE or the moderator and the mod team unless the moderator explicitly says otherwise

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    $\begingroup$ Just to add: if a user hasn't visited the site in months to years, we should assume there won't be responses to comments regardless of the reason. Knowing that the departure is permanent wouldn't change how we moderate. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Jul 22 '19 at 12:38
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Common Sense Approach

Since your question focuses on your own situation as much as on the SE system, I'll offer my no-nonsense, common sense, I'm not a lawyer bit of advice (bill to be sent under separate cover) in that direction:

The death of an online community member is one of those things most communities don't have plans for. And from the linked query, it looks like SE doesn't have any kind of definitive plan either (not that they should).

But from our own individual perspectives, I think it would be a wise idea to get a handle on all of our online accounts --- those that you use frequently, like WB.SE!, as well as the throw-away accounts and one time used accounts. I actually started and maintain a document with all those accounts I've had over the years. Even after weeding out some dead accounts, I was still amazed to find more than 20 pages worth of odds and ends.

When I die, someone's got to deal with all that!

I think for your personal use, making such a document would probably not be a bad idea, and could probably be attached to your will as a codicil. (Since the document would have passwords and account logins, talk to your lawyer about how and where to store this addendum.) Somewhere in your will, you'll probably want to name some kind of online power of attorney who, in accord with your surviving spouse or knowledgeable heir, will be empowered to deal with your various online presences.

I can imagine that your SE account should be relatively easy to deal with. I guess it's kind of up to you whether you want to leave a "Hey guys! Just wanted to let you know that I died on the 14th instant, so, sorry!, won't be responding to comments henceforth! See you when we meet again!" kind of message on your profile. You'd probably at the least want to empower your e-POA to open up your profile and click on "delete profile" to permanently close your account.

I don't think any of our deaths will "matter" to the community, in so far as it will unlikely even be aware that it's happened. I mean, I recognise maybe a dozen or so prolific members of this particular stack. If one disappeared, my first instinct probably would not be "oh, they must have died." Like HDE 226868♦ said, there are any number of non fatal reasons one might leave a community like this. However, your own death clearly matters to you and your loved ones and I think you're smart to be proactive about what you write in places like this. What you've written here, of course, is part of your intellectual property and you have the right to protect that, at the least by preventing someone else five, ten or twenty years later from hacking your abandoned account and posing as you.

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