When Letícia Werle’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few years ago, she and her sister were forced to make a series of difficult decisions. That included deciding what to do about their mother’s Facebook page. Both sisters agreed to delete the profile after her death, thinking it would be too painful to encounter her lingering presence online.
Werle’s mother had used the internet to dote on her children, often calling through Skype, forwarding email chains, and reacting to Werle’s every post on Facebook with commentary and compliments. But deleting the profile “left a blank space,” Werle told Rest of World. “I would see the comments listed on a post of mine and open it, just to find that the one she made had vanished.”
Six years later, after the coronavirus pandemic forced Werle to spend more time at home, she began questioning the decision. One day, while sitting in her house in Lajeado, a small town in southern Brazil, where she lived at the time, Werle logged into her mother’s Facebook account on a whim. She already knew the password by heart and had registered herself as her mother’s “legacy contact,” a designation that allows a person to manage the Facebook profile of a loved one after their passing. After Werle revived the account, she watched as her mother’s comments and posts came back to life, reading them over and over.
Werle, who works as a proofreader and translator, has spent her time in lockdown not only rediscovering her mother’s profile but reading the profiles of other Facebook users who are now dead. For years, she has been part of a private Facebook group called Profiles de Gente Morta (Profiles of Dead People), a space where Brazilians collect, share, and discuss accounts of the recently deceased. A handful of groups in Brazil share the name, which is abbreviated as PGM. Werle belongs to one of the smaller communities, but the largest includes more than 160,000 users, and, together, they have nearly half a million members.
From the outside, PGM groups may appear macabre, like watering holes for death enthusiasts. In reality, they are complex spaces where Facebook users process loss. “PGM helps you go through your grief. It answers your questions without judgment, without offending or harming anyone,” said Werle. “I don’t know if I would have recovered my mother’s profile, if it was not for the group.” Long before the Covid-19 pandemic digitized funeral practices and forced people to reckon with unfathomable loss, PGM members were developing a way to mourn the deaths of strangers together, challenging taboos about grieving in the process.
By the time Werle joined PGM, tens of thousands of the subculture’s members were already sharing daily updates featuring newly deceased users. The community dates back to the early 2000s on Orkut, an early social network owned by Google that was roughly as popular in Brazil as MySpace was in the United States. Back then, Orkut users who joined PGM searched for profiles belonging to victims of violent crimes and discussed their cases with one another. When the group later migrated to Facebook, it evolved to encompass people who died of any cause.
Each profile link shared in PGM groups is a portal into the life of a total stranger: how they looked in photos, what political views they held, who they were friends with, and who tagged them in posts. Some members look for commonalities between them and the deceased, such as a shared profession, alma mater, or birthday. Others study the last posts they made before they died, in an effort to piece together what may have happened. Just as often, the speculation extends into the afterlife, as members comment about where a person may be now.
Beyond morbid curiosity, people may find PGM groups appealing because of a phenomenon Jed Brubaker calls “emotional rubbernecking.” Brubaker, a digital identity researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, explained that Facebook has evolved into a space for public mourning, where pictures and written memories fill a loved one’s profile after their death. Users may seek out these profiles to observe the emotional fallout, like passersby slowing down to observe the aftermath of a car crash.
For years, the posts made in PGM groups have followed a standard format: a link to the Facebook profile of the deceased and a brief description, plus the person’s age, cause of death, and full name, which is bookmarked between two cross emojis. The groups also have their own vocabulary: “NSC” refers to “unknown causa mortis,” and “OFF” is used to label discussions about death and dying that aren’t related to a specific user’s Facebook page. Members flood the comment section with messages of “DEP,” the equivalent in Portuguese of “RIP.”
Moderators play an active role in deciding what happens within the walls of PGM and are responsible for approving all profiles submitted by other members. They are tasked with keeping an eye on heated debates and will step in whenever someone disrespects the dead, like by mocking those who passed away or ridiculing cases of suicide. Each group has a slightly different culture, which is reflected in their policies. Some pride themselves on being “uncensored” and include posts with images of grisly deaths. Others poll members ahead of time about whether they want their profiles to be featured after they die.
The job is an enormous time commitment. “At the very least, I’m there from the hour I wake up to when I go to sleep,” said Ana Bittencourt, a Brazilian journalist who moderates Werle’s PGM group. “My boyfriend does not get it. He finds it awful.” Bittencourt has lost count of how many notifications she gets in a day. Most come from active members who monitor obituaries and news sites for new cases or post the profiles of coworkers, neighbors, and even their own family members. “Whenever I find out that someone died, I think, Oh God, I have to post the profile for everyone to see it,” said Werle, who first joined her PGM group in 2014.
Recently, Covid-19 has become a major topic of discussion in the PGM community. Brazil has experienced the world’s second-deadliest outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and over 200,000 people have died (the actual death toll is almost certainly higher). Bittencourt said she had approved over 1,500 profiles belonging to Covid-19 victims by early October.
Years before the coronavirus reached Brazil, PGM members were already navigating one peculiarity of the pandemic — funeral livestreaming. It’s customary in Brazil to bury a loved one within 36 hours of their passing, so wakes, or velórios, are usually held as soon as possible. Last year, travel bans and social distancing forced funeral homes worldwide to launch digital services, but the Brazilian industry has long accommodated loved ones from other states and countries who can’t attend in person. By 2017, 10% of funeral homes in the country said they offered streaming capability.
PGM members took notice and began scrounging the web for funeral home websites that hosted velório streams that weren’t protected with a password. Others found passwords posted by family members on Facebook. In 2018, a survey of PGM members conducted by Andreia Martins van den Hurk, a death studies researcher at the University of Bath, found that more than a third of the people in Werle’s group had watched at least one virtual velório for someone they didn’t know.
“Sometimes the bodies would be there through the night,” said van den Hurk. “They felt they were keeping them company by watching and that it was an honorable thing to do.” Some viewers told her they had recently lost someone and found comfort or catharsis in seeing the deceased’s family and friends huddled in the chapel. But to other PGM members, the voyeurism crossed a line, putting viewers face to face with the deceased’s body.
“[Velórios] are far too intimate, even if they’re taking place online — funeral homes create those links for the families,” said Bittencourt, who as a moderator sometimes still approves livestream links, though they have become less popular over the past two years. “A few years ago, there was such a fever of virtual velórios. I do not judge it, but I personally find it awful.”
Without established social norms and taboos as a guide, the rules for how we mourn online are still being written, and social media platforms may play an outsized role in determining them. “Facebook isn’t a cemetery. Facebook is a community with dead people scattered about,” said Brubaker, who was part of the product team that built the social network’s legacy contact system, launched in 2015. As platforms continue growing, this disorganized archive of deceased users will expand as well. Eventually, researchers from Oxford University’s Internet Institute predict Facebook may host more profiles for dead people than people who are alive.
In the absence of a formal system for documenting death across the platform, PGM has essentially built its own obituaries page. They are not the first community to do so: In the early days of MySpace, users created a message board site to share profiles of their deceased peers called MyDeathSpace. Death tech researchers argue that the networked nature of online platforms have helped forge new forms of grief, which may not fit conventional molds. “If you’re going to think about whose grief is more important, do you think about the severity of an individual’s grief? Or do you think about the aggregate of small grief from a huge network?” said Brubaker.
PGM offers one model for confronting an accumulation of grief. Years before the pandemic, members were gathering every day to process the deaths of loved ones, alongside an ever-growing list of people they had never met. “Dying is social too. A velório has to have food, has to have water and coffee. People will look at the dead and say, OK, thank you, goodbye, see you next time — or whatever that person believes in,” said Werle. “It becomes a social event, and it changes people’s lives completely.” In PGM Facebook groups, strangers gather to perform a ritual that is much the same.