Holy Positivity! Death Takes USA Today by Storm, and For Once it is All Good
By Todd Plitt, USA TODAY
A video camera, audio files and blogging software all helped Diane DiResta handle the recent deaths of loved ones.
Angelo Merendino, who lost his wife, Jennifer, to cancer, documented the experience on a Facebook page.
After a cherished 89-year-old uncle died in Las Vegas in February — and there was no service or Mass to follow — the New York City resident again turned to technology.
“Since there was no way for the family to share his life and express their grief together, I created a blog,” she says. “I added pictures, and family members were able to post their memories of him.”
This is Mourning 2.0. Technological advances have dramatically altered how we grieve for and memorialize the dead.
In this new era, the bereaved readily share their sorrow via Facebook comments. They light virtual candles on memorial websites, upload video tributes to YouTube and express sadness through online funeral home guest books. Mourners affix adhesive-backed “QR code” chips to the tombstones of their beloved, so visitors can pull up photos and videos with a scan of a smartphone.
Those in need of consolation can replay the streaming video of a funeral service to hear a cleric’s comforting words. Those who want help remembering a yahrtzeit — the anniversary of death in the Jewish faith — can get e-mail reminders from websites such as ShivaConnect.com.
“It would be naive to assume that technology would leave the ‘death sector’ unaffected,” says Ari Zoldan, CEO of wireless-products provider Quantum Networks. “Technology has pervaded all aspects of our lives, and the honoring of our dearly departed is no exception.”
At the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association’s convention in Las Vegas in March, high-tech companies mingled with the more expected urn suppliers and casket makers on the exhibition floor. There were firms that created memorial websites and streamed online funeral videos, as well as producers of the QR codes that go on headstones and urns.
The pitch from LifeMarker, one of those QR producers: “Since the beginning of time, the memorial process has changed very little. Until now.”
The new mourning rituals come as society increasingly embraces all things digital. Nearly half of Americans own smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. One in five owned a tablet in January, up from one in 10 in December. Eight in 10 are on the Internet — and two-thirds of those online users tap into social-media sites.
“People are getting much more comfortable with multimedia,” says Elaine Haney, CEO of Tributes.com, an online publisher of local and national obituaries. “It’s become simple for people of just about any age to use.”
Many mourners already use Facebook as a gathering place to express their grief, often posting messages on the profile page of the deceased. Some speak directly to the departed, leaving sentiments such as “I miss you,” “Thinking of you” and even “Happy birthday in heaven.” Others post words of support for the family, recall fond memories and continue to “tag” the deceased in old photos that are newly uploaded.
Some families use the departed’s password to keep the Facebook account active and even create invitations to the memorial service that go out under the deceased’s name to his or her Facebook network.
Facebook’s standard procedure is to “memorialize” the page once it receives a report that someone has passed away, so only confirmed friends can see the profile and leave posts in remembrance. The social-media site also honors a family request to deactivate the account, which removes the profile and all associated information.
It’s a natural evolution for mourning to extend to the Web, says George Bonanno, a Columbia University psychology professor who has studied grief and trauma. The Internet facilitates traditional mourning rituals such as honoring a loved one, he says. It also gives the bereaved an opportunity to connect with supportive friends and family — even those who live far away.
While the digital tools may be new, they still soothe age-old emotions, says Therese Rando, author of How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies.
“Throughout history, we’ve memorialized people we’ve loved and lost,” she says. “These are not new needs. These are new ways of meeting the old needs.”
On the Web, mourners can find online support groups, participate in “grief recovery” webinars — and take heart that their loved one will not be forgotten when they see new comments on a Facebook page or memorial website.
“This is the best part of the Internet,” Rando says. “It connects people and allows them to recognize that they are not alone.”
Keeping a connection
Angelo Merendino, 38, lost his wife, Jennifer, in December. He continues to update a Facebook page that documents her battle with breast cancer, which began five months after their 2007 wedding.
It’s filled with black-and-white photos he took that show Jennifer in various stages of the disease. In one, she is thin, bald and receiving chemotherapy. In another, she poses with Angelo’s father, who is playfully wearing one of her wigs.
On April 5, Merendino uploaded a photo of a sunglasses-clad Jennifer at the beach and wrote: “I can’t believe it (has) been less than 4 months since Jen passed, it feels like a lifetime. I miss her so much.” Six days later, he commented on the fact that his tax-filing status had changed from married to widowed.
Friends, families and strangers frequently remark on the new pictures and emotional updates. Some of his posts receive hundreds of “likes” and dozens of sympathetic comments from those who knew the couple, as well as encouraging words from strangers.
“One of the most amazing things to me is how people have responded,” Merendino says. “I’m humbled when I see what someone has written. … People have really been moved by my and Jen’s love for each other.”
With each new update, he hopes to keep Jennifer’s spirit alive, as well as raise awareness for a cancer-support foundation he is creating in her name.
“These photos are about her fighting, not giving up, and really realizing how precious life is,” he says. “It makes me feel that she is still here and that she’s not going to be forgotten.”
Curating the site also gives him solace.
“If I didn’t have these photos and this going on, I’d be such a mess,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m feeling down, I’ll just look at it to see her. And sometimes I don’t feel up to looking, because it’s all too real, but that isn’t too often.”
A new way to do business
Seeing the new mourning trends — and the potential to create new revenue streams — the conservative funeral industry is cautiously entering the digital arena.
Many of these businesses were hit hard during the economic downturn as families opted for lower-cost cremations and purchased discount caskets from the likes of Walmart and Costco. In turn, they’re open to exploring new business strategies.
“Funeral homes are looking to reinvent themselves in many ways,” says Tributes.com’s Haney. “You’re hard-pressed to go to a wake anymore where there isn’t video tribute on a flat panel, vs. pictures on a bulletin board.”
In addition to providing high-definition screens to play video homages, many funeral homes offer add-ons such as the live-streaming of a funeral for a few hundred dollars, the ability to keep a digital guest book permanently active for $80 and the opportunity to keep a digital candle “lit” on a memorial page for $50.
While the funeral home industry faces falling profit margins — down to an estimated 10.4% in 2011 from 11.4% in 2006, according to research group IBISWorld — don’t expect any overly aggressive leaps into digital services, Haney says.
“This is an industry that is very thoughtful about change and does not change rapidly,” she says. “You always want to be doing the cutting edge, but we have to walk a fine line, so you can’t be too cutting edge.”
Appropriate or not?
As this new mourning culture emerges, there are times when the merging of technology and death can be disconcerting, or even distasteful.
Some people are unnerved by those who directly address the dead in Facebook comments. Others fear that the webcasting of funerals, memorials and shivas will lead to people watching these events virtually and not showing up to support the family of the deceased.
While an Internet connection can bring support from around the globe, there’s always the chance that mourners may retreat to an online-only world and not get healthy face-to-face interactions.
“People can end up really interfacing with the Internet rather than having in-person conversations and connections,” says How to Go on Living author Rando. “They could end up more isolated.”
Yet each year, mourners increasingly embrace technological offerings, says John Reed, a past president of the National Funeral Directors Association who owns two funeral homes in Webster County, W.Va.
“At first I thought, ‘We’re in the Bible Belt, so I’m not sure how this will go,’ ” says Reed, who “gently implemented” webcasting services about three years ago.
But customers steadily took to it, and he now streams about half of the 140 to 150 services he does each year.
FuneralOne, a technology company that provides funeral homes with webcasting services, streamed 17,258 funerals last year, up from 768 funerals in 2008.
As technology improves — and more people use digital devices — mourners will be able to tackle once-unconventional tasks such as streaming a funeral by simply using a smartphone or tablet, says funeral industry consultant Robin Heppell.
“We’re getting close to the point that if people want to do it themselves, they can just do it with their iPhones,” he says.
There are still those who shun the digital innovations, particularly older clients, says Reed. But many customers also realize that technology can bring people together.
For instance, with video streaming, an overseas family member can view the service of a loved one, he says.
As customers become more accepting of the merging of digital and death, video streaming will become a more interactive, two-way exchange, Reed predicts. Even if a close friend or relative is out of the country, he or she will be able to offer a eulogy that could be broadcast at the service.
“The new generation has grown up with this type of technology,” he says. “As we move forward, we’re going to see more people who want to do this.”
And the holdouts?
“The older people will die off,” Reed says, “and their values will leave with them.”