E-mortality: Death in the Digital Age
Michele Flanigan doesn’t sound like a necromancer on the phone. She laughs easily, and many of her sentences rise in pitch like open-ended questions—quirks I would not have expected in a confessed raiser of the dead.
Before she took her current job as office manager at Lakeview Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where her grandmother and mother also worked, Flanigan did a stint in New Haven at Grove Street Cemetery, Yale’s silent neighbor. When she started, the burial records were “a mess,” she told me. She immediately began to organize the records with Microsoft Excel for quicker reference.
“I have to [organize the records], because otherwise I may never find what I’m looking for,” she said. “I’m an organizational freak, so that was definitely my first priority.”
What started out as a managerial project soon morphed into an attempt to digitize death. Over the next two years, the Grove Street staff uploaded the records Flanigan digitized to a searchable database on the cemetery’s website. Flanigan was struck by how many families called the office asking for their loved ones’ records to be added to the database. Thousands of the burials on the site—8,023 of the more than 14,000 listed—occurred before 1990, when the Internet began to go mainstream. For many of them, other than their archived obituaries, these online burial records are the only digital evidence of their existence.
When Flanigan set out to reorganize her workspace, she inadvertently resurrected more than 8,000 people in cyberspace. But Flanigan’s project is not unique, nor is it the most ambitious: a quick Google search for “digital death” reveals countless websites and services that aim to protect our online legacies after we pass on. From creating simple memorial websites to designing complex social networks, arranging for an afterlife in the cloud could soon become a normal part of preparing for death, not unlike finalizing a will or selecting a casket.
Five years ago, Mandy Benoualid and her father paid a visit to a large cemetery near downtown Montreal. Benoualid’s grandmother was interred in the cemetery’s columbarium, a stone structure that holds funeral urns. When she passed away, the urn containing her ashes had been placed in one of the many compartments lining the columbarium’s wall. Benoualid was paying her respects to her beloved grandmother when a glimmer caught her eye.
A CD cased in plastic rested in front of an urn with a man’s name inscribed on it. The front of the case said, “Dad’s work.”
Presuming “Dad” to be a writer or a musician, Benoualid googled the name on the urn but could not find any information about his life. He had no digital presence. She was frustrated by the elusiveness of his identity.
“Everybody in a cemetery has some type of history, some type of story to tell,” Benoualid told me. “There’s that date of birth and that date of death and that dash in between, and there’s so much life story within that dash.”
Shortly after that cemetery visit, she set out to help people define their dashes.
In 2013, Benoualid founded Qeepr, a website whose mission is “to ensure a loved one’s legacy lives on(line) forever.” A deceased person’s relatives can use Qeepr to design a custom online memorial page complete with photos, life milestones, and a family tree. Qeepr is one member of a larger suite of websites working to answer the same question: what should happen to our digital presence when we die?
Qeepr’s answer is simple: digital death, like digital life, should be social.
Every Qeepr page displays a profile picture of the deceased and a banner image, much like a Twitter account. The biography section lists important information about the person’s family, resting place, and life milestones. The mementos section holds photos and videos, while the family and relations sections provide more details about the person’s relatives.
Benoualid gave me the link to a mock profile so I could explore Qeepr’s functionalities. The fictional deceased person is a woman named Caroline. According to her biography, Caroline passed away three years ago. When I first log onto her page, I am surprised by how interactive it is.
“We actually built the site initially on the main principles of social media,” Benoualid said.
I browse Caroline’s page. There are about a half-dozen mementos of her life posted, all of them photographs. I can see the users she is related to, including her daughter, her mother, and even her step-grandmother. I discover that the account is managed jointly by her daughter and the cemetery where Caroline is supposedly buried. A map of New Mexico shows me exactly where I could have found her grave if she were real, even down to the plot number.
I spot a small comment section at the bottom of the profile. The most recent comment—the site dubs it a “condolence”—was posted last November. Four months before that, Caroline’s husband posted a picture of their wedding, which, her milestone timeline tells me, took place more than fifty years ago. Anyone on Qeepr, even total strangers, could view Caroline’s profile and post on her page. Caroline’s family opted out of the invite-only privacy setting, making her profile accessible to the public.
For about seventy dollars, the family can purchase a half-dollar-sized plaque with a unique QR code printed on it. The code links directly to Caroline’s memorial page, and the plaque can be placed near her headstone. Her life will be just a camera snap away.
When Marc Saner, a professor at the University of Ottawa, isn’t busy directing the Institute for Science, Society, and Policy (ISSP)—a network of professors and students exploring topics in technology governance and innovation policy—he is pursuing his cherished hobby: his digital cemetery.
Saner is the president of the World Wide Cemetery (Cemetery.org), a memorial website created in 1995 by the engineer Michael Kibbee, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma two years later. In 2014, Saner began directing the site, which allows users to create online memorial pages for their deceased loved ones. The pages are guaranteed to remain online and ad-free for a century. Digital real estate is still real estate, but it is considerably cheaper. The going rate for a page on the site is 90 dollars, less than one-tenth the price of a modest headstone.
The World Wide Cemetery is far less interactive than Qeepr.
“I was looking for something really simple and basic with no ads…something like a graveyard,” Saner told me. “It is the exact opposite of what you would expect in 2018 from the Internet.”
When I visit the site, the first thing I notice is the quiet, the stillness. There are no pop-ups, no flashing animations, and no advertisements: just an obituary in black text set against a beige background. Funeral home wallpaper comes to mind. I click on the memorial of the site’s creator, Mike Kibbee. His warm smile greets me as I pull up the page: two photos of him have been included in the memorial. I have the option to leave a short message for free, or, for nine dollars, I can leave a longer message with virtual flowers. Saner personally monitors the postings to prevent disrespectful comments from desecrating the space—the digital version of perpetual care.
I click on a few other memorials, browsing them slowly and methodically, as I would the rows of fallen soldiers at Arlington. The lack of digital noise adds a touch of serenity to my web-surfing.
In the World Wide Cemetery, Saner has wedded the tranquility of a cemetery to the convenience of the web. In the process, he has created a time capsule containing not just photographs and memories, but life stories.
For the several hundred residents of Cemetery.org, their memorials may be the only lasting digital imprints of their lives.
“Not everyone is notable enough for a Wikipedia entry. If you’re not notable, then you’re just gone,” Saner lamented.
Their pages will survive for at least the next three generations, meaning their great-grandchildren may well visit their website rather than their gravesite. It’s probably not forever, but it’s something.
Even without Qeepr or the World Wide Cemetery, it’s possible that our digital ghosts could continue to haunt the web after our deaths on social media.
What happens to our accounts—and who gains control over them—after we die is somewhat hazy. Many sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter allow the deceased’s family to decide the account’s fate. Twitter only offers the option of deactivation, but both Facebook and Instagram offer permanent deletion or memorialization. If an account is memorialized, people can still view it, and, in Facebook’s case, family members can interact with other mourners through the account. However, who has the final say in creating the memorial is not clear, nor is the lifetime of the memorial page clearly defined.
In short, we probably should not rely on social media to faithfully preserve our digital legacies. Even if we could, I am not sure I would want my last words to be some random RuPaul’s Drag Race meme I managed to retweet seconds before I croaked.
Sites like Qeepr and Cemetery.org seem to be our best shots at digital immortality for now. In sheer numbers, there is no comparison: the World Wide Cemetery has a few hundred online memorials, whereas Qeepr has almost one hundred thousand. Yet the concept is essentially the same: using the web to remember people who might otherwise be forgotten.
Perhaps one day, sites like these will bring us closer to virtual immortality in cyberspace. If that happens, the inscription on the imposing gates that guard Grove Street Cemetery might finally come true. “The dead shall be raised,”—or, at least, uploaded.