Phantom Birthdays

To this day, my mom keeps a calendar crammed with details of every anniversary, birthday, vacation, doctor visit, and celebration to be observed, all kept up with the upmost accuracy.

Many years ago, however, she participated in a practice that only spread widely with the creation of Facebook. She continued to list birthdays even after the people celebrating them had died. This in itself wasn’t a problem, except that she kept adding to their years. Someone who had died at 83 would find themselves miraculously turning another year older the following year, despite being dead the entire time.

One day, my dad noticed that the dead were aging and stopped it with much humor and incredulity. Facebook doesn’t have the benefit of my dad, so unless one of the living has access to the account and takes it down, these phantom birthdays will continue, and like with my mom, you can see how old someone would have been had they not died years ago.

The first person I discovered this phenomenon with was Roger Ebert. His wife Chaz chose to keep both his Twitter and Facebook accounts active, and so every year on what would’ve been his birthday, she celebrates his life.

At least in his case, most people know he’s dead. With people who aren’t famous, it’s easy to wish someone a happy birthday without looking at their page, and so not see the large post announcing that person’s passing — particularly if they weren’t that active on Facebook.

When my friend Shigemi passed away, I didn’t find out until a year later, and so became the person who tried to tell her other Facebook friends that she was no longer alive. It was a shock when she died, as she wasn’t that old. More recently, another person I knew died, and while one hopes the number of tributes that line her page will alert anyone wishing to post birthday messages that she is no longer around to receive them, that’s only if you go to the page itself. She also sold her artwork through her own website. One wonders if people, even now, are attempting to place orders that will never be fufilled.

So that got me thinking about COVID. How many people have passed away who still have active Facebook accounts? How many birthday wishes are celebrating phantom birthdays? Unless the living have access to the accounts, there’s no way to close them. Depending on the permanence of Facebook, these accounts could survive long enough for their grandchildren to come across — a chilling reminder of a year like few others in history.

Nowadays, my mom only celebrates the living on her calendars. And I don’t have to worry about her becoming a phantom birthday on Facebook.

She doesn’t have an account.