Deathswitch: the latest attempt to reach beyond the grave

Kory Plockmeyer

In the digital era, mortality takes on a new dimension. Consider Deathswitch, which offers users the opportunity to communicate important messages after their death and even the ability to communicate well into the future. Deathswitch checks in with users periodically and, if a specified number of attempts to reach the user go unanswered, the system automatically sends out the user’s pre-written messages to loved ones.

On one level, Deathswitch fills an important need. I set up a Deathswitch account that will email my wife a message including a single list of login information for online accounts. The experience was challenging, though. How often do I want the system to check that I’m still alive? I began by setting the timer at 90 days but eventually brought it down to weekly intervals. After all, the thought is that I want to provide helpful information to my family in the event of my untimely demise. Yet I found myself wondering: how often do I really want to confirm that I continue to live and breathe?

I found it challenging to know what to say in my automated death email. I am not uncomfortable with death or even the thought of my own death. I wondered, though, what I might say in death that I would not otherwise in life. I found this aspect of Deathswitch somewhat troubling. Wired sees the service as a means of the dead communicating with the living, as the paid version of Deathswitch allows users to write up to 30 different emails with delivery dates well into the future. As I struggled to know what to say in one single email to my wife, I wondered what I would possibly say to her years after my passing. I found myself asking: would I really want to receive a pre-written email from a loved one 10 or 15 years after their death? Honestly? No.

While we as Christians affirm the resurrection of the body, we also recognize an interim finality to death.

The fundamental problem with Deathswitch’s paid version is that the idea of continued communication after death is flawed and, dare I say, even disrespectful of our loved ones. The flaw lies in the nature of communication. Relationships are built upon two-way interaction, but pre-written Deathswitch emails are one-way. While we as Christians affirm the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, we also recognize an interim finality to death. That is, we are not meant to communicate with one another after death.

The two-way nature of communication ensures that we listen to one another and respond to the emotional needs and spiritual state of those with whom we are talking. Were I to pass away unexpectedly, I cannot know how my loved ones would be processing my death in the months and years to come. In my attempts to communicate with them, I would be unable to respond to their present emotional and spiritual state. Sharing secrets after death (one possible use encouraged by the Deathswitch website) seems to me to be less about inviting others to know us better and more about dropping a ticking time bomb of information. Rather than being acts of love, I fear that such Deathswitch emails would be disrespectful of those I love most.

While Deathswitch has a practical application, perhaps it is best if we only receive one letter from our deceased loved ones. Romanticized notions aside, I suspect that it makes for healthier two-way conversation while living.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology