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It started with an urgent, mid-morning text message, accompanied by a breaking news photo that was going viral. A Rio Grande Valley man had lost control of his big rig on U.S. 77 in South Texas, resulting in a catastrophic wreck. The driver, a former U.S. Marine, died at the scene. I recognized his name and the trucking line immediately.

My mind swirled. The likeable fellow and his charming wife had once lived across the street from my daughter, where they hosted lively weekend barbecues and the husband kicked soccer balls with my grandson. My first inclination was to log on to Facebook. The deceased man’s wife is a passionate social media user with a big following.

Initially, I found nothing out of the ordinary, but later that day a sorrowful, gut-wrenching post by the grieving widow announced her husband’s passing.

That evening, I started thinking about my own mortality, and the growing list of Facebook friends who have passed away. I rarely visit pages of the deceased, nor do I post “Happy Heavenly Birthday” greetings. My dad always said, “Son, when you’re gone, you’re gone.”

I scribbled down some names and checked out pages of deceased friends. Some had been converted into memorials — an option Facebook introduced in 2015 — but most were still active — although lifeless — strewn with ads, innocuous shares, an occasional “Why haven’t you called me?” and unanswered happy birthday greetings, lingering like digital cobwebs.

There was a childhood pal, Jerry, a hardcore conservative, who in his final days got pretty rank with his political posts and dared people to defriend him. A civil servant named Bill could not rest in peace. An old adversary posted ugly remarks about him on Bill’s page, prompting a friend named Judy to issue a stern warning to the defamer to “shut up and respect the dead.”

Long after another friend’s passing, his page contained a message from a glamorous female wanting to know why he had not responded to her friend requests. Checking out the requestor’s profile I was greeted with photos of a scantily clad young Asian woman in various suggestive poses. Her bio claimed she was self-employed.

Three years after his demise, the Facebook page of the head of theater at my alma mater looks as lively as ever. At first glance, you wouldn’t know that the man is gone. Former students regularly post photos, well wishes and memories.

Death often knocks without warning. An elderly friend named George, who married his second wife at 81 and took daily walks at South Padre Island, posted this: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s learning to dance in the rain.” A short time later, George died of a heart attack. And then, there was my cousin D.J., a life-long free spirit, who, two weeks before her death from cancer, posted an update on her latest acrylic painting project. “I have an urge to go big soon. Now if I can just urge myself out of my comfort zone.”

Eventually, I identified 63 deceased Facebook friends. The process was tedious and time consuming. My initial inclination was to delete all of them, but on second thought, I backed off. After all, if I were to have second thoughts, there’d be no point in sending a friend request, now would there?

All roads lead to Google. I found a comprehensive “Online Death” study undertaken by researchers named Carl J. Ohman and David Watson, who projected that before the year 2100 there will be at least 1.4 billion deceased Facebook users worldwide. A day could come when the number of “dead profiles” on Facebook exceeds the living ones.

And what will become of the “data of the dead?” Will it be deleted, archived, stored on devices that no longer function? And who will have legal access? What about privacy issues and genealogical searches? Where there’s money to be made, there will surely be cyber-vultures combing through the digital bones of the deceased. The social media giants face myriad legal challenges relating to such issues. With increased regularity, “digital detectives” will sift through the data of the departed searching for all sorts of valuable information, ranging from “what made grandma tick” to, “See, I told you so, grandpa had a mistress stashed away in Houston.” Knowledge is power. And power translates into money.

The next day I went into my Facebook settings and elected to designate my wife the executor of my account. Rather than leaving my profile to drift aimlessly after I’m gone, it will be up to her to either delete it, memorialize it or merely post a notice of my passing. But even with that last option, she’ll still retain the right to shut it down later.

In his apocalyptic classic “1984,” George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future.” It behooves all of us to recognize that in the cyber age, physical death does not end our digital existence.

F. Ray Gaskin lives in Bonham, Texas.