Memorial, Virtual


Virtual memorials, also called web memorials, are web pages or sites specifically dedicated to honoring the dead. Cyberspace tributes to the dead appeared shortly after the creation of computerbased communication. Initially most tributes were responses to death notifications on billboards and in listserv formats. While such tributes continue to appear in most cyberspace community venues, many individuals are utilizing a more permanent and accessible form of acknowledging their dead.

Memorial Types

Web memorials vary by individual involvement, cost, and connection to established ritual. The most individualized of web memorials are freestanding web pages, which are rapidly increasing in number as the Internet and web page technology become more accessible. Because they are freestanding and there is no single term to describe them, these web pages may be overlooked by search engines, making an estimate of their number difficult. However, even incomplete searches indicate that there are a myriad of memorials for individuals as well as for group tragedies, including airplane crashes, school shootings, and other sudden violent deaths.

More accessible are the growing number of web rings devoted to memorializing the dead. Web rings are individual web pages with a common theme that are linked together so that one can travel from page to page until one comes full circle, returning back to the first web page. Most memorial web rings are run by volunteers who created the web ring in reaction to their own loss. Usually there are no charges and few requirements for linking individual memorial pages to the web ring.

Most memorial web rings are grouped by the relationship of the deceased to the memorial author or by cause of death. Web rings devoted to deceased children are the most common. Generally, there is an opening page that describes the web ring, its mission, and a list of the children memorialized. Clicking on the child's name will take the visitor directly to his or her memorial, or one can view memorials in sequential fashion, using the links at the bottom of each web page to view the next memorial in the ring. Like freestanding memorial web pages, memorials linked to web rings are often elaborate, with pictures (sometimes video) and music. Many memorials have multiple pages devoted to the story of the child's life and death and links to bereavement resources. Most memorial web pages have a guestbook or an e-mail link so visitors can contact the author directly.

Both freestanding web memorials and those linked to web rings are created and maintained by the bereaved. However, Internet services change periodically and volunteer managers vary in their ability to maintain web rings. Consequently, creating and maintaining memorial web pages requires some computer expertise and the willingness to make modifications as they become necessary.

An alternative to creating individual web pages is placing a memorial in a web cemetery, of which there are several. The oldest web cemeteries are Virtual Memorial Gardens (VMG) http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/vmg/ ) and Dearly Departed ( www.dearlydeparted.net ), both free services that began in 1995. VMG is the largest web cemetery, housing thousands of human memorials. Both VMG and Dearly Departed accept e-mail tributes to the dead, which the cemeteries convert into web memorials and arrange alphabetically. Other than requesting the name of the deceased and their birth and death dates, neither service specifies format, content, or length requirements. Consequently, the size of memorials varies, from the simple recording of names and dates to memorials that exceed two single-spaced pages of text. Content also varies, with the majority of memorials emphasizing personal stories about the deceased, while fewer than 10 percent include the accomplishments and affiliations stressed in newspaper obituaries. Another variable is audience; approximately 30 percent of memorials are written as letters to the dead. Once a memorial is posted in either of these web cemeteries, it is maintained by them and considered permanent, much like the graves in traditional cemeteries.

Freestanding web memorials, memorials linked to web rings, and memorials sent by e-mail to the above online cemeteries are free, once one has gained access to the web. Other free web cemeteries include several sites devoted to the memorialization of pets, the largest of which is the Virtual Pet Cemetery ( www.mycemetery.com ) and sites that include pet memorials along with human memorials, like Virtual Memorial Gardens. All of the free web cemeteries were created and are maintained by either a single individual or a small group of unpaid volunteers, which can affect their services. For example, in 1998 all of the cemeteries previously mentioned requested help from those who utilized their services because of the increasing volume of memorial submissions.

Although there are free services, the majority of web cemeteries charge some fee for the posting and upkeep of memorials. Fees range from ten to fifty dollars for most web cemeteries and generally do not reflect the breadth of services provided by each site. For example, World Wide Cemetery ( www.cemetery.org ), one of the oldest and best organized sites, has all the amenities of other web cemeteries but charges a one-time fee of ten dollars. Their memorials have an individual guestbook, can include pictures and links, and are arranged alphabetically on individual web pages.

Most web cemeteries evoke images of traditional cemeteries, with pictures of cemetery gates or gardens on their opening pages. Opening pages often invite visitors to "enter" their cemetery, and once inside, web cemeteries tend to be visually consistent; memorials have similar features and there are simple methods of traveling from one memorial to another (usually through a list of links to memorials or letters of the alphabet). This visual continuity provides a sense of place and to many, a feeling of community; as with traditional cemeteries, other losses and the people who mourn them are nearby.

Most web cemeteries were started in the mid-1990s; since that time, closely related services called "online memorial sites" have appeared on the web. Rather than employing one general format for memorials, most online memorial sites provide a variety of prototype memorials from which the bereaved can choose, making online memorial sites more diverse than web cemeteries. Online memorial sites generally utilize a search engine for locating memorials, so that typing a name on the opening page takes the visitor directly to a particular memorial. This feature provides quick access for the visitor, but limits the experience of the memorial site as a whole that is provided by the listing of names in most web cemeteries. Therefore most online memorial sites are more difficult to browse than web cemeteries where the visitor can stroll from memorial to memorial as easily as in any graveyard.

Online memorial sites and web cemeteries also differ in the cost and length of time memorials are posted. In general, online memorial sites are more costly, with prices reflecting the number of pictures and links included in the memorial, as well as the addition of audio and video clips and e-mail guestbooks. Many online memorial sites also charge according to the length of time the memorial is posted, charging by the month or year. Therefore, unlike the majority of web cemeteries (where permanent memorials are free or provided at a one-time cost), many online memorial sites use the model of the newspaper obituary for their pricing; the more elaborate and longer running tributes are more expensive. In general, costs at online memorial sites are at least $100 for posting a memorial for one to three years. Although the initial involvement by the bereaved is similar, online memorial sites may provide less sense of community than web cemeteries because of their potential lack of permanence, increased diversity, and more limited access to other memorials. Examples of online memorial sites are Perpetual Memorials ( www.memorials.com ) and Virtual Memorials ( www.imminentdomain.com ).

The popularity of web memorialization has not escaped the funeral industry; many mortuaries are adding the creation and maintenance of web memorials to their list of services. For example, Flintofts Funeral Home and Crematory in Issaquah, Washington, offers a web memorial at no extra charge with all memorial packages, and attached over 400 memorials to their web site from 1999 to June 2001. While their memorials have individualized backgrounds, the general format is the same, with at least one picture of the deceased, information on services and viewings, and a general biography. Unlike other web memorials where the text is written by the bereaved, mortuary-based memorials are written by funeral directors and read more like extended obituaries. Therefore, there is an emphasis on accomplishments, memberships, and survivors, rather than the stories and letters favored by the bereaved. While mortuary-based memorials remove the bereaved from direct involvement in their creation, web technology is utilized to better inform the community and to extend their communication with the bereaved. At the bottom of each memorial are buttons for printing, signing the memorial guestbook, and viewing their list of memorials.

Functions

All web memorials provide a tribute to the dead that can be accessed anytime from almost anywhere. Those lacking an internment site or who live too far away can visit a web memorial when it is most meaningful to them—whether at midnight or midday. Many memorials are visited frequently, and the authors of freestanding or web ring memorials return to maintain them, much like one tends a grave.

Most web memorials provide a way to contact the bereaved, typically through an e-mail guestbook. Guestbooks give anyone the opportunity to offer condolences, potentially expanding the support network available to the bereaved. Also, guestbooks remain available to visitors and the bereaved long after the normal condolence cycle.

Most web memorials are not limited to a certain size, allowing the bereaved to create more lengthy and personal tributes than in other forms of memorialization. The psychologists Marcia Lattanzi and Mary E. Hale found that after traditional postdeath rituals have ended writing to and about the dead can aid in the expression of emotion, creating a sense of perspective and sharing about the death. Web memorials can be a catalyst for talking with others about the dead as well as a method for sharing with those who never knew the deceased. In addition, creating the web memorial can be a group activity, where sharing strengthens existing relationships.

However, the function of web memorials depends on the type of memorial established. Death educators have argued that the more removed the bereaved are from the ritual process, the less beneficial the rituals will be. From this perspective, mortuary-based memorials may be the least useful, while freestanding memorials or memorials linked to web rings may provide the greatest benefits to the bereaved.

All web memorials except mortuary-based tributes (with their ties to the timing and purchase of traditional services) provide opportunities for publicly memorializing the dead that are not available in other venues. There are no restrictions on who writes a memorial (and for whom); those who have felt disenfranchised in the death system are given the opportunity to engage in this public ritual when they may have been denied access to others. Traditionally disenfranchised groups like parents of miscarried babies, pet owners, and friends of the deceased are frequent authors of web memorials. Web memorials can be created at any time (even years after the death), providing the opportunity to honor continuing bonds with the dead. In addition, the cost of web memorials is not prohibitive—even the most expensive web memorial services are cheaper than most traditional obituaries or grave markers.

Questions and Concerns

The web has created new opportunities for memorializing the dead that appear to enhance the lives of the bereaved. However, because web memorialization is a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, many issues concerning the future of web memorials remain unresolved. Three of the most troubling issues are:

  1. Web memorials could substitute ritual: Web memorialization appears beneficial when used as a supplement to traditional rituals, with time and greater acceptance, web memorials may be considered a substitute instead, perhaps taking the place of rituals that foster direct human contact.
  2. Web memorials could remove the bereaved from the process of death: Positive elements of web memorialization include writing, constructing, and maintaining one's own memorial to the dead. As more services remove the bereaved from this process, the abilities to express emotions, share thoughts with others, and continue caretaking activities for the deceased are compromised.
  3. Web sites may not be permanent: Web memorials depend on a stable web site and someone to periodically check their functioning. Therefore, the continued existence of web memorials depends on the bereaved themselves, volunteer site managers, and/or for-profit companies. But who will tend the memorials when the companies go out of business and the volunteers become unavailable? Physical graves remain in place after years of neglect, but will web memorials?

As the web has grown and diversified so have web memorials to the dead. Used as a supplement to traditional ritual, such memorials provide extended opportunities to honor the dead and have more meaningful communication about the dead with the living. However, the future course of web memorialization remains to be determined.

See also: Burial Grounds ; Cemeteries and Cemetery Reform ; Grief: Child's Death, Family ; Internet ; Lawn Garden Cemeteries ; Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Bibliography

Argyle, Katie. "Life after Death." In Rob Shields ed., Cultures of the Internet. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.

Lattanzi, Marcia, and Mary E. Hale. "Giving Grief Words: Writing during Bereavement." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying. 15, no. 1 (1984–85):45–52.

Roberts, Pamela. "Tangible Sorrow, Virtual Tributes: Cemeteries in Cyberspace." In Brian deVries ed., End of Life Issues: Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Perspectives. New York: Springer, 1999.

Roberts, Pamela, and Lourdes Vidal. "Perpetual Care in Cyberspace: A Portrait of Web Memorials." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying. 40, no. 4 (2000):521–545.

PAMELA ROBERTS



User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

CAPTCHA


Memorial, Virtual forum