Traditionally, death has been a great taboo in Western culture, a topic delicately sidestepped in polite public company and private reflection alike. But since 1995, the taboo has been at least partially dispelled in the informational glut of the Internet, which has brought the subject of death within easy arm's reach of millions of the previously averse or oblivious—merely typing in the letters "d-e-a-t-h" in the window of a search engine (i.e., www.google.com ) yields no fewer than 23,600,000 items, enough to daunt even the most avid scholar or morbid connoisseur of mortality.
However, these web sites provide far more than mere information: There is practical help in the form of bereavement support and information on organ donation and living wills, death in cultures around the world, hospice care, and numerous other areas.
Some of the most useful sites guide the web surfer toward services as well as information. One such site is www.excite.com/family/family_in_crisis , which lists numerous links to social and medical services and information for those burdened with grief or terminal illness. The site lists links to other sites regarding euthanasia, suicide, estate planning, and many other related topics. Those with more theoretical concerns might profitably consult www.tripod.lycos.com . There, the student, teacher, or researcher can find additional links to a wealth of other informational sites.
Because search engines often yield a dizzying plethora of responses, it is useful to narrow the range of responses by making the topic as specific as possible. For example, instead of merely typing in "grief," one might add "AND" plus another word to limit the search—say, "children's." Then only topics pertaining to children's grief will appear on the list of responses, saving the searcher a good deal of time and effort by reducing the number of items to several dozen rather than several thousand.
Another important watchword for web surfing on this or any other topic is "vigilance," a critical tool in distinguishing between the trustworthiness of a site produced by a distinguished scholar, such as Michael Kearl, and a personal site titled "Buffy's Death Page." "Caveat emptor" should be the watchword for every Internet surfer, where triviality and fraud are as common as the authentic and rewarding.
Demographics of Death on the Web
A number of web sites specialize in a statistical approach to death—its causes and demographics, life expectancies, social factors, and so on. The data on these sites are updated frequently and are usually culled from reliable government and scholarly sources. Some such sites are devoted to particular segments of society. For example, www.runet.edu provides information on life expectancy for African Americans compared to whites, along with other health-related data. Government sites, such as www.cdc.gov/nchs , give a broader range of data for many different segments of American society, including major causes of death in various age groups.
In other sites the accent is on the individual—for example, by entering a name, place of death, or Social Security Number at www.vitalrec.com , one can locate the death record of anyone in the United States. This site also provides links to sites that yield overseas records as well.
Cross-Cultural and Religious Information
For those interested in the religious dimension of death and dying, there is a wealth of sites that provide access to information on the death rituals, funeral customs, and mourning practices of nearly every known religion or cult, major or minor. Other sites dwell on a more broadly cultural approach to the meaning of death and attitudes toward the dying—a site might be devoted to a single culture such as that of the Cree Indians ( www.sicc.sk.ca ), while others might explore a broad range of cultures. One of the best is found at www.encarta.msn.com . Sites such as these also provide links to related web sites, as well as to printed material and reading lists.
Grief and Bereavement
The most numerous death-related web sites are those that deal with grief, both as a subject of analysis and as a topic for practical guidance to coping. The Griefnet web site ( www.griefnet.org ) provides one of the most extensive support systems online. It includes several web pages and over thirty small e-mail support groups. Griefnet posts a companion site for children and parents.
Some sites are designed to deal with specific categories of grievers. The Australian Widownet site ( www.grief.org.au ) provides information and self-help resources for widows and widowers of all ages, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations. Suicide often evokes special issues of grief. One particular site that includes personal testimony by those who have experienced the death of a loved one by suicide is www.1000deaths.com . Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Inc., a nonprofit group that provides support to those who have lost a loved one who met his or her end while serving in the armed forces, can be found at www.taps.org . The site provides peer support, crisis information, a variety of resources, and the opportunity to establish a virtual memorial.
Other bereavement web sites provide information not only for the bereaved but also for the professionals who are a part of the death system. Genesis Bereavement Resources ( www.genesisresources.com ) provides a list of music, videos, and other material that may be helpful to grievers, health care professionals, funeral directors, and pastors.
No detail is too slight or awkward to escape the attention of web entrepreneurs. Bereavement Travel at www.bereavementtravel.com allows one to make travel arrangements at the time of death at the special bereavement rates offered by many airlines and hotels. This service is primarily a convenience for the bereaved.
There are also special sites dedicated to unique bereavement responses, including www.aidsquilt.org/Newsite , which provides information on the AIDS quilt that has been shown all over the United States as a memorial to victims of the illness. In addition to bereavement support, some sites offer guidance on life-threatening illnesses, such as www.cancer.org for the American Cancer Society and www.alz.org for the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Association.
Compassionate Friends, the best known of the national bereavement support groups for parents who have experienced the death of a child, has a web site at www.compassionatefriends.org . Here, one can locate local chapters, obtain brochures, form a local chapter, and catch up with the latest related news. There are also organizations that help visitors locate or start a grief support group.
Finally, there are sites for many well-known organizations that are part of the thanatology field. The Make-A-Wish Foundation ( www.wish.org ) fulfills special wishes for terminally ill children. They send children to theme parks, arrange meetings or phone calls with celebrities, and perform other special services for ill children.
Bereavement guidance on the web is not limited to those who have suffered the loss of human companions. Those dealing with the loss of a pet may go to the web site for the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement at www.aplb.org . One of the most unique sites in this area is www.petloss.com , which provides online grief support and describes a special candle ceremony held weekly to commemorate the death of a pet. Also at this site, one can find reference to other related web sites, chat rooms, and telephone support.
The web offers a range of end-of-life issues, including care of the terminally ill, living wills, and hospice care. Choice in Dying ( www.choices.org ) is the organization that first devised a living will in 1967, long before states adopted a legal policy on this issue. This nonprofit organization and its web site provide counseling for patients and families, information on advanced directives, outline training resources for professionals, and serve as an advocate for improved laws. The American Institute of Life-Threatening Illnesses, a division of the Foundation for Thanatology, can be found at www.lifethreat.org . This organization, established in 1967, is dedicated to promoting improved medical and psychosocial care for critically ill patients and their families.
People have long complained about the high cost of funerals and related expenses. There are numerous web sites that offer online casket purchases and other related items. Such sites promise quick service and complete satisfaction, often at steep discounts. In addition to caskets, www.webcaskets.com offers urns, markers, flowers, and other funerary items. At www.eternalight.com one can purchase an "eternal" light, guaranteed to glow for thirty years. The light can be used at home as a permanent memorial to the loved one. The site donates 10 percent of the purchase price to a national support group of the customer's choice.
It is possible to plan an entire funeral service online at www.funeralplan.com . One can actually watch a funeral service from many funeral homes by going to www.funeral-cast.com . The National Funeral Directors Association maintains a site at www.nfda.org . Here, one can locate funeral homes, obtain consumer information, and learn about careers in this field.
Some web sites defy easy classification. One popular site is www.deathclock.com . Here one can plug in one's date of birth and gender, along with one's attitudinal and philosophical propensities, and obtain the likely date of one's demise. Visitors can watch the clock count down their time on Earth. Many college students find this to be a fascinating site and download a screen-saver version—every time they turn on their computers they watch their lives "tick away." Other interesting sites include www.1800autopsy.com , where one can contact a mobile company to perform such an examination, and www.autopsyvideo.com , which allows visitors to view autopsies online. These web sites are used by professionals and educators, as well as the curious.
The web is aswarm with jokes on all topics, and death is no exception. Some web pages specialize in bad-taste death jokes, many of which center on celebrities. One site in particular allows the visitor to "bury or cremate" someone. After entering a name and choosing a method of body disposal, one can watch as the casket burns up.
Obituaries and Last Words
Numerous web sites provide visitors with the opportunity to post memorial messages. Most of these sites charge a fee for permanent placement. At www.legacy.com , one can pay a fee of $195 to place a memorial, including photograph, on the site.
Memorialtrees.com arranges for a memorial tree to be planted in any state in the United States or in the Canadian provinces. The fee is less than thirty dollars and includes a certificate of planting and a card that Memorialtrees.com sends to the survivor.
Much attention has been paid to the issue of the near-death experience. Two sites that are particularly useful include www.iands.org , the official web site of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, replete with research information, case studies, and resources; and www.neardeath.com , which includes near-death experiences of people of various faiths along with the testimony of children and suicides who have had brushes with death.
Legal and Financial Issues
A number of sites offer guidance in the many practical and financial matters that arise after a death. One very comprehensive site is www.moneycentral.msn.com . Here, one can find answers to general questions regarding finances, collecting life insurance, and handling bills of the deceased. One can also obtain information on making a will without consulting an attorney. A site like www3.myprimetime.com includes information on estates as well as the impact of being a griever and executor.
The Internet has dramatically expanded the availability of resources in the field of thanatology, providing both useful and irrelevant sites. Anyone consulting web sites must be careful to sort through them to find those that are helpful and accurate.
"Funeral Rites and Customs." In the Encarta [web site]. Available from www.encarta.msn.com .
Radford University. "Sociological Comparisons between African-Americans and Whites." In the Radford University [web site]. Available from www.runet.edu/-junnever/bw.htm
DANA G. CABLE