Midway through his thirties, Tom Ainsworth realized he was going to die. Of course, he always knew. Death comes for all of us—those are the rules. But when his own father passed away, in 2011, and then his close friend a few years later, it suddenly hit him over the head like a cartoon anvil. One day he, too, would leave everything he loved behind. Not right away. Or, maybe right away. Who could know? He had to start preparing.
In 2014, Ainsworth created a memorial page for his dad on Skymorials, a sort of digital cemetery. “I was one of the first users ever,” Ainsworth says. Now, he’s the CEO. The company, based in Melbourne, Australia, has since rebranded as Memories; its users go there to mourn loved ones on digital memorial pages and offer condolences with things like virtual flowers. (Ainsworth wasn’t sure people would pay money for that until he saw his kids spending egregiously on new Fortnite skins.) Memories also hosts digital “vaults” for living people to store things like precious photos, videos, and life stories, which can be shared after their passing. Kind of like Dropbox but for the dead.
Ainsworth loves his job. Death, it seems, gives him life. He spends a lot of time thinking about how to help people grieve and about his own legacy—he journals religiously, so he can pass down his life story to his kids when he’s gone. That got him thinking. Maybe there was a way for Memories to preserve peoples’ legacies more dimensionally. It could let people speak to their descendants directly, for years to come, maybe even generations into the future. The concept became Future Messages, Memories’ latest feature. It lets people record video messages, while they are alive, to be dispatched to loved ones after their death. Since developing Future Messages, Ainsworth regularly sends little recordings to his wife—mostly to test that the feature works, but also, you never know.
Grief is intractable, and egged on by wishful thinking. If only Dad could be here to walk me down the aisle. I wish our last conversation hadn’t been so dull. What I wouldn’t give to hear “I love you” one more time. Future Memories aims to quell some of that by encouraging the living to imagine how they will be grieved and then inviting them to show up after they’re dead. In a commercial for Future Messages, a boy mourns his grandpa, occasionally sending him updates on his life in a one-way text thread. Then one day, years later, Grandpa messages back. “If you're watching this, Maxie, it's your 18th birthday,” Grandpa says in a video recording. “I’m really proud of the fine young man you’re becoming. I'll always be with you, mate.” The effect is heart-wrenching.
Though death is hard to control, people like Ainsworth are determined to create a future where you at least have some say in what comes next. In that vision, he is not alone. Scads of startups have emerged to sell better death preparation to people who are still alive. Some are as simple as modernizing the process of drafting a will (like Willing—TurboTax for estate planning). Others aim to give people more control over their end-of-life wishes (like Cake, where people can document requests for Viking funerals or preemptively draft their final tweets). The classic burial options have been upgraded by startups like Bio Urn (turn your ashes into a tree), Eternal Reefs (lay to rest on the ocean floor), Algordanza (from corpse to wearable diamonds), and Recompose (human composting).
Part of the desire to preplan your own death comes as a courtesy to your loved ones, who usually shoulder the burden of things like funeral arrangements and redistributing possessions. The other part comes from a desire to manage your own legacy. When you die, you don’t get much say in how your memory lives on—especially online. “We get birthday greetings from dead people on Facebook. We get their work anniversaries on LinkedIn,” says Rikard Steiber, who founded the legacy management startup Good Trust earlier this year to solve the problem of posthumous accounts. No one wants their legacy to be LinkedIn notifications sent from the grave.
Like Memories, Good Trust is courting two types of customers: the bereaved and those who are living but one day plan to die. (In that sense, the market is very big.) For the first type, Good Trust offers a white-glove service to clean up the digital accounts of the deceased, from memorializing Facebook pages to shutting down ongoing subscriptions. Some of these tasks turn out to be quite Sisyphean: “If you want to extract content, those things are a hassle and cost a lot of money,” Steiber says. To inherit an iPhone photo album or a private Spotify playlist or someone’s unfinished manuscript in Google Docs, Steiber says, you typically need a court order to transfer custody, given those platforms’ privacy standards. Good Trust offers to handle that, and all of the other accounts, starting at $39.99.
This month, Good Trust will also expand into death planning with a feature that functions like a will for digital accounts. Someone can list the total of their accounts, subscriptions, and social media log-ins, along with instructions on what to do with them in the case of death. That person then assigns a deputy, who is granted access to the “will” after their death. (You can also authorize Good Trust to expunge certain accounts posthumously, before anyone else has a chance to find them.) The portal has places for documents like a will and a medical directive, a birth certificate or the title to a house. Steiber says it encrypts everything in its portals and requires two-factor authentication from all of its users.
As more of our lives are lived in ones and zeros, these online spaces have become a critical place for understanding, and memorializing, a person’s life. A series of meticulously curated Spotify playlists is just as valuable as a beloved record collection; seeing the last Google search someone made is every bit as intimate as the unwashed mug left on the table, the last thing to have touched their lips. Custody of these digital spaces, then, is every bit as important as managing inheritance in the physical realm. Leaving a loved one the credentials to your Gmail, or the passcode to your iPhone, can be a powerful bequeathal.
Steiber also sees potential for people to control how they are remembered by the internet. Using Good Trust, you could create instructions for which tweet to keep pinned at the top of your Twitter. You could leave directions for what to post on your freshly memorialized Facebook account, alerting your friends of your death. “You can kind of have that person speaking from the grave,” Steiber says. Then, with a service like Memories’s Future Messages, you could carry on the conversation, leaving little video dispatches from the distant past for years into the future. One day, Ainsworth believes, we’ll be able to use AI to animate ourselves for even longer, maybe even having back-and-forth chats with our loved ones. It will be as if we’ve never died at all.
It’s a seductive idea. To live is to constantly leave behind a trail of ourselves, in the hope that it’s remembered nicely—or remembered at all—after we’re gone. Legacy, the playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda once wrote, is “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Preparing messages to send and share with loved ones is more like buying a tree. There's more control over where it grows, how it casts shade. But for those who are left behind, maybe there was something worthwhile in the gardening.