Wednesday, 23 November 2016
I suppose an obvious feature of all "celebrity deaths" is that although many of us will have been aware of the person concerned, to a greater or lesser extent, hardly any of us could ever actually have known them, personally. At most, we will have known the ins and outs of their legend and their works, and thus had a small personal investment in their "passing" (another of those evasive euphemisms for death and dying I dislike). If nothing else, they're a useful dress-rehearsal for the real thing.
Another, less obvious feature is that we all get to know of, say, Leonard Cohen's death at more or less the same time. It's an event, a talking point, an opportunity for reflection and self-definition. This, I have come to realise, is untypical. I recently described how, purely accidentally, I got to hear of the death of an old friend, a year later. In fact, had I not actively sought to satisfy my curiosity about her and made certain enquiries, facilitated by the internet, a whole decade later I might still be under the illusion that she was out there in the world, doing whatever it was she had found to do with her life. It was, after all, a very one-way process: I have since passed on the news of her death, but never once have I heard the sad tidings from someone else.
Similarly, I recently wondered what was up with frame-maker, tempera-painter, and all-purpose curmudgeon Bron Janulis, a frequent commenter on this and various other blogs. Commenters do come and go, but Bron had been a constant presence over the years and, to be honest, in my self-centred way, I was concerned that my posts had become sufficiently boring for someone like Bron to stop visiting, not least because he also failed to show up in my recent poll of regular visitors. But a few seconds on Google revealed that Bron had died in March 2015. I haven't summoned the courage, since, to investigate the fate of some other commenters who have fallen silent. My hope is they did simply get bored (not true: if I'm honest, I'd much prefer that they stopped reading because they were dead).
By contrast, I very recently received an email from the wife of photographer Graham Dew, telling me that he had died. I knew Graham was dying, as he had sent an email to his contact list, more or less apologising for his lack of communication in recent months, and outlining a tragic sequence of medical discoveries culminating in an incurable cancer (Graham was just 57). But, the thing is, I barely knew Graham. He arranged my talk at the Arena Photography Group back in 2012, and we subsequently commented intermittently on each other's work and blogs and exchanged the occasional email, but we never actually met again, despite our geographical proximity (Graham lived in Winchester). My point here is that I heard about his death simply because I was on his email contact list, which he must have passed on to his wife. No contact list; no email; no news.
This made me think about the way the internet has changed things. For example, you, like me, may be wondering what has happened to Mark Woods, who runs (ran?) the estimable wood s lot blog. There hasn't been a new post on there since July 2016 (coincidentally, marking the death of poet Geoffrey Hill). Is he ill? Is he dead? Or has he just lost interest? I'm told he isn't replying to emails ("Hey, Mark, are you dead?"). Which raises the interesting point: who manages our online affairs after we are found slumped cold over a keyboard? Graham Dew managed this supremely well, but most of us won't. How could Bron's family possibly have known the identities of a scatter of people, world-wide, to whom his death was not a matter of indifference? Does anyone – your partner, say – have access to your email, or a list of your main online activities, from Facebook to your bank account, with the relevant IDs and passwords? Do you?
This could be an awful headache for executors in the future, especially now all the banks want you to go "paperless". It will be an online Catch-22: how will you figure out what accounts grandad had, without first already having access to them? How will you know you need to get access to them, without a paper-trail to show they exist? Did he forget to pass on his email password? Oh, dear...
Handling the accounts of the recently-deceased will become a major issue for all online companies, and not just banks. "Grandad just ordered a ten-foot TV, but, ah, won't now be in to receive the delivery, morning or afternoon. No, I don't know his password. No, I'm afraid I don't know the make of his first car, or the name of his primary school, either".
And all those precious family photos conscientiously stored in the cloud? That bit of the cloud just evaporated. Forever. Unless, of course, grandad is one of the minority who bothered to make a will that, these days, needs to include all those access details. Over 55? Got email, bank accounts, a blog, an Apple or Facebook account, etc., etc., all with more than a few IDs and passwords? Make a list; on paper. Just do it. And keep it up to date. If nothing else, I'm sure your friends would like to hear that you're dead.