Daily Business Review: Virtual Gravesites

Last updated on: May 24, 2022

Social NetworkingDaily Business Review

Dying is no reason to give up online social life

By The Associated Press

In today’s world of always-connected social media, there’s no reason to stop interacting online simply because you’re dead.

A wave of new companies are starting to offer services such as virtual cemeteries where guests can visit and e-mail alerts set up by funeral homes to remind relatives near and wide about the anniversary of your death.

Some companies even offer to e-mail your wayward relatives in danger of being left behind when the Rapture whisks you to the threshold of the Pearly Gates.

While such services seem to reach beyond the grave, a growing generation of funeral customers refuse to let death have the final word.

“People have a desire to perpetuate not only for themselves, but for their loved ones, the story of their lives, and technology has all these new great ways of doing that,” said John McQueen, owner of the Anderson McQueen funeral home.

As baby boomers plunged headlong into online social media in recent years, they’ve become especially interested in upending the traditional philosophy that funerals are really meant for the survivors. After all, this is the “Me Generation.”

But beyond generational vagaries, technology now means a funeral merely begins a new virtual afterlife. And entrepreneurial companies are right there to make that happen.

Los Angeles-based EternalSpace.com launched its Web site in March, offering a variety of virtual scenic locations online for a person’s final resting place: A “Zen Garden,” a “Lake View,” a “Tropical Valley” and other options.

Sold directly through funeral homes, the service allows a person or relatives to establish a pastoral grave site and add digital amenities such as the image of a park bench or mausoleum.

Once there, visitors can purchase items to leave behind, such as flowers, religious icons and other trinkets symbolically important to the deceased, such as golf clubs, a horse saddle, a piano or trees that can grow over time. Prices for each range from $5 to $35 apiece.

Typically, a funeral home includes the cost of a virtual world along with the price of a funeral service, said Jay Goss, vice president of development for the site. If bought separately, that scenic online site could cost a few hundred dollars, he said.

“This gives people the opportunity to do not just flowers,” Goss said.

The Charlestown, Mass.-based online obituary site Tributes.com already has hundreds of thousands of profile pages, based on death information from the Social Security Administration. Soon, executives with the site expect to offer pre-death services, so people can plan their own online profiles to run after their funeral.

“For many people, they’re saying ‘This is my celebration, and here are my thoughts,’” said John Heald, vice president of business development. “They’re challenging us to do things out of the box.”

Michelle Costley of Tampa felt compelled to do something online when her father Thomas Michael Costley died in January. After a quick Google search for “Online Memorial,” she found Legacy.com and built a profile page with her father’s picture, a place to donate to the National Kidney Foundation, a photo gallery and a memory book.

“He was constantly on e-mail and a big Facebook fan, so I think he’d be appreciative,” Michelle said. “The site has really been helpful to myself and others, I believe. Sometimes when I’m down, it’s nice to pull up the site and be able to look at his face.”

For users of the world’s most popular social media Web site, Facebook offers a way to leave the ultimate status update.

Already, Facebook has become a central hub for news that a person has died with their home page functioning as an ad hoc trading post for information about the funeral and gathering place for condolence notes.

After that initial phase, relatives can ask Facebook to place the dead person’s page into a “Memorial State” that limits use to only certain friends and family members. To trigger that process, family members typically must send Facebook a newspaper clipping about the person’s death, or an official death notice from a local government.

(Facebook launched the feature after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, when students flocked to each other’s pages to make comments.)

In the next few months, John McQueen expects his funeral home will add more ongoing digital features, including e-mail reminders that customers can set up for distribution on key dates.

“This would come after you visited a person’s online profile,” McQueen said. “It would auto-send you notification that this person’s birthday is coming up next week, so you might want to drop his wife a card or call. That could go on indefinitely.”

Funeral directors expect more baby boomers will create a vibrant online life after death.

“We’re all watching the Baby Boomers starting to ask what it’s going to be like when they die,” said Alan Creedy, a Raleigh, N.C. consultant to the funeral industry. “Boomers are looking at the funeral as a form of self expression.”

And with so many boomers active online, Creedy said, they’ve simply become accustomed to creating virtual worlds to stay in contact with friends, family and co-workers no matter the circumstances.

Creedy has seen a small but steady uptick in the number of first-person obituaries, drafted for publication upon a person’s death.

In his own home town, Creedy saw the famous North Carolina State University women’s basketball coach Kay Yow film her own eulogy to be played at her funeral in January. The video was quickly picked up by local TV stations and on YouTube, where it’s been watched thousands of times.

For those who worry about those truly left behind when they die, there are some new services to help.

The Harwich, Mass.-based Web site YouveBeenLeftBehind.com promises to save your advice for relatives and friends whom you fear might not make it to Heaven should the end of the world occur.

The computer system is designed to detect the Rapture: A group of several faithful families, geographically dispersed, log into the system daily, and their failure to do so trips the switch. In that event, the system presumes those families were taken up in the Rapture, and sends out your last-chance advice to a list of 60 or more addressees.

Several hundred customers have signed up to pay $14.95 per year, since the site launched a year ago.

“I did set up a message to go to my wife,” said Mark Heard, founder of the site. “She was the inspiration for the whole thing because she’s not really on board with me in this belief.”

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