Online condolences grow as outlet for grief, source of support
Last Updated April 15, 2008
When Susanne Jones's husband Brian passed away recently, the Collingwood, Ont., funeral home with which she was dealing created an online memorial and condolences page.
For Jones it was a huge comfort.
"I checked the funeral home site every day and I always found a new voice in the online wilderness, offering comfort and happy memories. Scrolling through the site is like taking a walk through life's history and I will forever cherish it."
In addition to the funeral home's memorial, several of her husband's friends created a Facebook memorial for him; something more people are doing as society turns to the internet to mourn loved ones.
"It would be inappropriate to show up at someone's door, but the internet provides an alternative way to reach out to people without being in their face," says Anabel Quan-Haase, assistant professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario.
Online memorials are now becoming a staple of funeral homes across Canada and the United States.
Henderson's Funeral Homes, a chain in Canada and the U.S., started what it calls Everlasting Memorials five years ago.
Shawn Molner, location manager at Henderson's Funeral Home in Chilliwack, B.C., explains, "It offers family members a chance to create a life story of the person. They can share their own writings, pictures and images with their friends and family."
Molner says his location introduced the concept recently and it's been quite popular.
"The funeral industry tends to resist new technology because many times you're dealing with an older crowd, but they're embracing it."
Virtual memorials springing up all over
While funeral homes might seem like a likely place for an online memorial, a social networking site might not.
In fact, tiny virtual memorials are springing up all over the web as sites scramble to keep up with the trend to remember online.
Most young people these days have profiles on Facebook or Myspace, their videos displayed on YouTube and their writings on personal blogs. Those profiles have inadvertently become memorials to them when they die.
Facebook reigns supreme right now in the world of online memorials.
"When you see a person's profile still on Facebook it gives them immortality. For a moment in time, their online persona is exactly the way they left it," says Quan-Haase.
There's no better example of this than the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings last spring. Students' profiles beamed as if frozen in time. Friends set up memorials to them and university students across the continent set up online support groups.
Facebook administrators have moved quickly to ensure the integrity of the profiles by putting them into a Memorial State when they learn a user has passed away. In the Memorial State, certain profile sections and features are hidden from view to protect the privacy of the departed.
On YouTube, clips of entertainers quickly become areas where fans can pay tribute. For instance, within hours of actor Heath Ledger's death, YouTube was littered with tributes.
Quan-Haase says, "The internet gives people an opportunity to deal with their collective grief over the loss of a loved one."
Members of gaming communities are also discovering that death doesn't necessarily mean the end of a player or even a battle. After the untimely demise of one young player of the popular online game World of Warcraft, the deceased's friends held a virtual funeral. Other players, sensing a ghoulish opportunity, ambushed the funeral and killed all of those who attended. It can be viewed here.
The 3-D virtual world Second Life, a community created by users, has several areas where its members can mourn the dead. An island called Memoris hosts a number of gravesites that can be rented in memory of the deceased. As well, there are memorials created for those killed in different tragedies. The site even offers an area to mourn deceased pets.
Some companies are seizing online memorials as a potential moneymaker. One company in the U.K., Alphatalk Limited, has a website entitled www.mylastemail.com. It recommends buying a virtual grave, which can be kept open for as long as 25 years after a person's death. It offers an online memorial account allowing customers to store messages that will be sent to certain people after their death as well as a client's life story, will and financial information, photographs and videos. Northern Memorials offers a similar service with an online obituary, photographs, memory section and donations. Neither website returns media inquiries.
The advantage to online memorials says Quan-Haase is, "Our physical self may be gone, but our virtual self lives on after."
Right now, Jones is considering whether to create a more permanent online memorial tribute to her husband.
Because he was an artist, his work is also found on two gallery websites.
"Both of these websites, for now, do a great job of showing his images, but someday I may look to the web to build a more permanent site, bringing the tributes and the images of his art together," says Jones.
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