The etiquette of Facebook and death: A word from the Emily Post Institute


Authored By Maggie Behringer

I recently encountered a disturbing situation involving the death of a family friend, Facebook and an unexpected early morning phone call.

Thankfully, the experts in all things etiquette at the Emily Post Institute were available for comment and official guidance in how to best use the social media platform that has become so enmeshed in our daily lives.

First, the story. 

For brevity’s sake, herein is a (somewhat) pared-down explanation of how events unfolded: The family friend passed away of a heart attack late one Friday evening. After he was discovered in the middle of the night by a neighbor, the police, emergency medical services and a family friend (who is a doctor) arrived.

By the early hours of Saturday, an inner circle of friends had gathered with his younger brother, who asked those present to refrain from spreading the sad news until he had a chance to tell his mother at a more reasonable hour that one of her sons had passed away.

Unbeknownst to those few in my family friend’s house, however, the news had already begun to trickle through the Facebook feed.

The spouse of someone in that inner circle had relayed the news to one person via Facebook, thinking that no one would have thought to tell this person. That person went on to message several other people via Facebook, with a sentiment of love, but also with the assumption that the recipients had somehow already been informed of the death.

Neither the spouse nor this person was in the house. Neither heard the deceased’s younger brother call a pause on all announcements.

I was clued in by a frantic phone call from one of my friend’s at 8 a.m. that Saturday who had received a 5 a.m. Facebook message about our mutual friend’s death.

What followed were a few more phone calls, a confirmation that the message was referring to a real event and an unfortunate wake-up call to someone who had been in that inner circle and arrived home at 4 or 5 a.m., thinking there was time to sleep a bit before beginning to make the rounds of horrible calls. But she learned that, instead, she would have to start immediately, because apparently, the cat was already out of the bag.

OK, not so brief.

My initial reaction to this convoluted series of events was admittedly an overreaction: one of grumpiness at being confronted with a mess so early in the morning while I was in the process of traveling out of state and indignation that such news would be shared so early by someone who was not a family member. 

How would anyone feel, I fumed, if he or she were hit with such a reality shift that a lifelong friend, a treasured mentor, even a casual acquaintance-any relation!-had passed away through what seemed like such an impersonal, casual platform as Facebook?

But, over the next few days and well after the immediate family had been informed, the deceased’s profile became populated with a beautiful exhibit of posts: his artwork, video clips of his live music performances, candid photos and messages of love.

The same vehicle that had irked me so much was suddenly the epicenter of a beautiful, globally communal and deeply personal memorial.

What was going on?! 

When I put the question-much more eloquently phrased, of course-to Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of American manners matron Emily Post, he acknowledged that Facebook in this context, as in others, can be a tricky ground to navigate.

“The question is how do you use this medium with awareness and care,” he said, pointing to the first hours as the most mired in potential pitfalls.

Senning, who focuses on tech and social media etiquette at the Emily Post Institute and authored the soon-to-be-released e-book “Manners in a Digital World-Living Well Online,” noted that Facebook and its sisters in social media are now a piece of everyday life that the public no longer approaches with a sense of immodesty. 

Life events, both epic and mundane, with their accompanying photo documentation, are all on the table now. When it comes to their profile, people are not hesitant to announce and share more of themselves online.

With this crossing of a collective comfort zone, the good, the bad and even death is fair game. And it isn’t necessarily a negative development in our social character and experience.

My family friend’s profile morphed into an avenue for celebration, for vital connection in a time of grief. 

Senning recalled the story of a man who employed Facebook as a method of spreading the news of his father’s passing and, typically a more reserved character, found a meaningful social bridge to friends and family in the platform that he wouldn’t have established in person.

The skill of Facebooking when it comes to both good and bad news is in the timing and the simple step of double-checking before clicking the post or send button.

“The general rule of thumb is don’t scoop important news,” Senning said. “If the immediate family has not made the announcement in that space, you would wait.”

He added that informing people of any kind of news is best done in the most personal of manners, whether that be the ideal face-to-face setting, on the phone or a private electronic message.

The Emily Post Institute has seen a few practical and proactive tech tricks that help avoid such situations: Family members or individuals can turn off the comment capability on their walls, or in order to send a piece of information quickly to a large group of people, they can create a private group message.

The bottom line is that Facebook, with its pictures of lunch, congratulatory engagement posts, baby announcements and messages of a friend’s passing, is here to stay and only growing more and more rooted in our interactions with other people.

“It’s another tool we have at our disposal,” Senning said. “We have to learn how to use that tool with some intelligence.”