Back in the day, people would write letters "to be opened only in the event that I am dead."
But if most of your life is conducted online, then what? As we age, a number of my single friends have morbidly wondered what would happen if they died. Would anyone notice they were gone? How could their online friends be notified? Or, if they died, how could they keep their family from finding out about their alter ego as Master Leathertongue on some more outre' sites?
Time Magazine did a fairly complete overview of the issue earlier this month. In short, the various email and social media sites are prepared, and there's a couple of services that you can use.
Yahoo! Mail's rule is to keep accounts private, though the company was taken to court in 2005 when relatives of a Marine killed in Iraq sued to gain access to his e-mail account. (Yahoo copied the e-mail messages onto a CD rather than give the family the password.)
Hotmail allows family with proof of death and proof of relationship, Time said. Gmail requires the same proof, as well as a copy of the headers of an email message sent from the deceased to the petitioner.
After the shootings at Virginia Tech, Facebook created the notion of a "memorial" page, which turns off status messages and freezes the friends list but keeps the person's Wall open so friends can post about the dead person on their wall. (The request form doesn't seem to require any proof, however.)
MySpace lets next of kin request removal of content or the entire profile, with proof of death. In addition, the site MyDeathSpace.com lets people submit information about MySpace users who have died. LiveJournal, according to Time, has an informal policy of freezing accounts but keeping them online, but there is nothing in its FAQ about it. Photo-storage site Flickr also keeps accounts up, Time said, though again it was not evident online. To reassure people who don't want their moms seeing how they dressed up on weekends, any photos tagged as 'private' won't be made visible.
Where it gets more complicated is when there's other sites you visit. Chances are, you don't want to create a long Post-It with all the various sites and passwords you visit; aside from it being tedious and a security risk, it'd be a pain whenever you changed passwords.
To notify friends that you appear to have passed away, there is a service called Deathswitch, which sends you email at a frequency you select (as infrequently as once a year) and if you don't respond to a few messages, it sends out a pre-written message to a specified group of people. (There's also a "Wait, I'm alive!" button in case you went on vacation and forgot or something.) The FAQ even allows for the possibility that you lapse into a coma and then recover.
Similarly, Legacy Locker lets you grant access to online assets for friends and loved ones in the event of loss, death, or disability. Asset Lock lets you collect information on your estate, finances, insurance, and final wishes, which is released to specified people when you die.