Communicating from Beyond the Grave

Photo courtesy sommi,

I recently had what I’ll call an “episode” which caused me to pause and remind myself of my mortality. The circumstances aren’t important here other than to note that my immediate thought at the time was, “I don’t want to go out like that!” I did begin thinking, however, about what would occur if I suddenly found myself standing before the ultimate throne of judgment and the potential mess I would leave behind, and I’m not just talking about the collection of music and reading material I have. I’m referring to things left unpublished and unsaid, which would include both words most tender and the slings and arrows which the French refer to as l’esprit d’escalier.

There are also footprints through cyberspace to consider. Most of us have anywhere from one to a couple of hundred passwords for various things from email accounts and insurance policies to online collections of pornog…er, erotica and everything in between. I’ve seen those adorable little notebooks with the legend “Password Keeper” on the covers in gold and bold letters, created for the purpose of letting the owner mark down each and every one of their online passwords but which make it easy for whoever picks their pocket or grabs their carry-about to access their life and fortune. You don’t want one of those. You want something a little more secure. Many of you probably have a LastPass account which functions like the memory of a twenty-two-year-old who has never sampled drugs or alcohol and which will let you access whatever whenever you need it (though God help you if you forget the magic twanger for your LastPass account itself). At some point, your significant someone may need to access all of those passwords, including “iwant2writelikeJSB!” for Google Drive or “eyehaveAsecretcrush0n(initials deleted)” for your photos in your cloud storage. Then there are all of those works in progress on which you’ve been working progressively, including the masterpiece that you finished just before that one hundred plus percent blockage of the left anterior descending coronary artery that’s been manifesting itself as that numbness in your left arm which you’ve been 1) ignoring or 2) attributing to epicondylitis for the last six weeks suddenly decides to turn off the tap.  Wouldn’t it be nice, don’t you think, to have something that would store everything from your passwords to your documents for your spouse, successor, agent, administrator, and/or beneficiary might need and get it to each and all without worrying about a court order to open your safe deposit box, or to cause a scavenger hunt through a bunch of file boxes? Here’s something else. Rather than inconvenience everyone by forcing them to attend a funeral service (or to manufacture an excuse to be absent) wouldn’t it be better to record pre-morbid messages telling folks exactly what they meant to you and which would be sent to them after your death, since we know not the date, place or the hour?

There are, interestingly enough, a number of websites that will do just that. I had never heard anyone mention such a thing until a day or two ago, but such services have been around since 2012, which is a technological eternity ago. I don’t get out much, but you would think that because I don’t get out much I would know about this. That said, there are quite a few of them, and the services offered differ from site to site, as do the cost (though many are free). What they basically offer, however, is an ability to provide delivery of online documents, lists, and multiple media files to a person or persons of your choosing. You deposit the files electronically and provide the site/service with the emails of the people to whom you want to be able to access the files. There’s a dead man’s switch (and yes, there is an app available by that name) attached to some of the services which, if you don’t check in at regularly designated intervals to demonstrate that you are not on tour with the Choir Invisible, will assume that you are dead and will then send a link to your files to your personal Max Brod. Others, when you do not check in, will query your most trusted friends (again, you supply the list) to make sure that you have really passed on (as opposed to drying out after the most recent Bouchercon). There is an incomplete list of such sites here but there are others with such warm and cheery names as and that will get the job done as well.

I’m not endorsing any particular service here, having just become aware of them myself. It’s certainly something that I am going to explore, however, and not just as a tool for estate planning. This whole topic opens up a potentially rich new vein of story possibilities in what my bud Marcus Wynne calls the grammar mine. Here is one: someone receives an email correspondence from a long-estranged deceased friend which contains a cryptic video file showing a murder. I won’t ask you what yours might be, but please take a moment to check out one or more of the links and then tell us: would one of these services be of any particular benefit to you? Or does the paper file in the cabinet (or safe deposit box) work just fine for your purposes? Please let us know. And stay safe and healthy. As for me, I’m going to go write a final blog post as a goodbye. I hope it’s not needed for a long, long time.


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

16 thoughts on “Communicating from Beyond the Grave

  1. So far, we’ve just put all our assets into a trust. We haven’t gotten around to the digital side of things, but I’ve at least thought of it. Maybe I’ll think some more. Thanks for the nudge.

    • Terry, you’re welcome. Sounds like you’re already planning, which is more than a lot of folks do.

      • Saw the difference between dealing with my dad’s death–he had a trust–and my aunt, who left a will. Don’t want to put my kids through any more hassle than necessary.

  2. Great post, sir. You struck a chord with me. Not long ago, while suffering acute kidney failure, I laid in a hospital bed undergoing my sixth straight day of dialysis and literally thought I would die before my daughters could make the flight from Florida. Lying in a bed for four hours at a time watching your blood circulate through a washing machine is real conducive to thoughts of mortality. I did survive, and I’m doing pretty well now, but the whole thing changed my views of life and relationships. Some things become more important than others. Telling people how much you love them and what they mean to you is now at the top of the list. I think people would rather hear it from you now than read it in a letter or email after death.

    I am working on a “love letter” notebook for my wife and kids. Using websites like you mentioned, I gathered the information I needed to leave letters of instructions for when I’m gone. Things like lists of bank accounts, insurance policies, veterans benefits, people to notify. And passwords.

    When my dad died suddenly of a heart attack, he left Mom with chaos, no instructions, no records, nothing. My folks never talked about that kind of thing. Mom never really recovered from that. I don’t want my family to suffer that.

    I’m not quite ready to cash in my chips, but when the time comes, I don’t feel like I’m leaving as much undone and unsaid.

    Oh, and while I’m at it, I want to tell all of you here at TKZ how much you’ve meant to me over the years. You’re the first thing I read every morning. And even though I don’t always contribute, I get so much from each of your posts. Some of you I’ve come to know better and count as friends, but all of you have enriched my life beyond words.

    God Bless.

    • Thank you, David. I like the idea of that notebook to your wife and family. It’s blessedly low tech. And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank you and acknowledge your deep and gracious generosity over the years. Good luck Tuesday and God Bless You as well.

  3. Joe, your password formulations are superb.

    My dad left my mom a notebook with all the info she needed. Years ago I did the same thing, and update it once a year.

    I strongly encourage Living Trusts. Be sure, writers, to include your intellectual property.

    “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. What now?” (Last words of writer William Saroyan)

    • Thank you, David. That suggestion about a living trust is excellent, particularly for those of us who have different children from separate relationships. I like your notebook idea as well.

      I’m particularly happy that you like my passwords. I use that first one for everything, as no one would ever guess it…um…wait a minute…

  4. Good topic and one that’s all too easy to ignore out of denial (and the ‘busyness” of life). Other than paying for my funeral on the installment plan (which means I can’t die for 3 more years), I am not prepared and need to look into these things. I am wary of sites that offer these services, just because I don’t trust anyone with my personal data. I’m more of an old fashioned “letter with instructions” kind of person. I don’t know anything about living trusts but I will look into that.

    I don’t have any net worth, but of all things, I want my collection of historical research books to go to loving homes (not likely but I’d like to try & keep them from being dumped in the trash or some cast-off shop). Gee whiz–that would make a good topic all on its own–how do you make sure your treasured books find good homes?

    And no, I never have given serious thought to what becomes of my stories when I die. For that one, I don’t have any good answers. I’d be curious if others HAVE thought about that and your plans for dealing with it. I’m not thinking so much published books, though that’s important, but what about works in progress? Just curious what people think of about handling their ultimate disposition of their brainchildren?

    Dave, as a fellow commenter, I echo your sentiments. My involvement with blogs has ebbed and flowed, but when time came to whittle down my blog reading to just a couple, TKZ was the one I kept. Thank you all, bloggers and commenters, for the TKZ community that I appreciate so much.

    • BK, you’re welcome, and thank you for mentioning an issue that I am sure has crossed the minds of many of us here at TKZ: what do we do with our book collections and accumulations, particularly those of financial and sentimental value? It is a good topic for discussion and maybe one that someone here (perhaps even me) may address in the future. I am in the process of paring things down myself so I might share my experiences.

  5. Good morning, Joe.

    Looks like not too many want to discuss that final chapter.

    I’m glad your “episode” didn’t turn out to be that final blog. And I hope you’re doing okay now. Your familiarity with the symptoms of the “widow maker” (left anterior descending artery) had me worried.

    As for my preparations: My wife owns everything. She keeps all the financial records. We have trusts set up. I’ll be the one who’s scrambling if I outlive her. The reminder about intellectual property reminded me that we need to update our wills.

    And the other thing this blog said to me: Why am I still holding my nose to the grind stone with a job I’m enjoying less and less? Why am I allowing myself to be trapped in so many activities I don’t really want to do? I call it being caught on the rack. It’s time to start living.

    Thanks for the reminder, Joe. And while we’re expressing appreciation, let me just say that I’ve appreciated your blogs, your friendship, and your legal advice. I hope you write many posts over many years before that final blog.

    • Good afternoon, Steve! I’m fine, thanks. I had a momentary episode of some symptoms which caused me to think, in the immortal words of Scooby Doo, “RUT WRO!” but which turned out to be related to breathing problems which are longstanding but intermittent. I’ve recently had a number of friends who experienced the widowmaker episode and did not make it to the finish line, alas.

      Re: intellectual property…yes, indeed. What is particularly important is who makes the decisions as to how your work might be used. Prince’s musical estate is an incredible mess. James Brown’s is as well, for different reasons, as is Fats Domino’s. We don’t like to think of it but tomorrow is not guaranteed.

      Steve, thank you as well for your friendship, trust, generosity, and kindness. It means a lot.

  6. When my mom died a few years ago, one of her final caring gifts to the family was a huge folder filled with absolutely everything we would need to go forward with her cremation, funeral service, and the probating and closing of her estate.

    She had even written a rough draft of her obituary and the hymns and Bible verses she wanted at her service so we knew we were giving her the send off she wanted.

    Most of us with families already have our wills in order, but, writers need plans for our books after we die.

    Here’s info on author estates and wills I’ve collected.






    My article on the subject:

  7. Wow, Joe. I had no idea these password keepers existed. Makes sense, though. Thanks for the links. All my passwords are stored in my keychain and scribbled in a notebook. Perhaps it’s time I make better arrangements.

    • Sue, you’re welcome. You at least have some redundancy in your storage, so that if you lost one source you could use the other to access and change your passwords to something like “J0eizdeman!” Just kidding. Anyway, as I mentioned, I use lastpass and there are others. Again, though, keep the password for whatever service you use handy and in a secure place where no one will find it. I keep mine under the lawnmower. Hope you’re having a good weekend!

  8. Joe,
    Very good points here. Every time I fly away in an airplane, before I go, I update my personal information for my kids and attach it to my legal papers. I’ve advised my son where everything is and have gone go far as to list personal items that I know each of my children would enjoy. It was a mess when their Dad died and I vowed, I would not put them through that again.

    • Frances, that’s a great idea, no matter what mode of travel one uses. Thank you!

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