Grief Goes Online

The boon and the bane of virtual bereavement

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The number of funeral-related websites is steadily, if slowly, growing, reports Dragonfire (Nov. 2006; www.dfire.org). Funeral-Cast.com, a company that claims to have been the first to offer online webcasts of services, came online in 2000. The older World Wide Cemetery (www.cemetery.org) launched in 1995. Funeral homes are offering password-protected webcasts of services, while sites like VirtualMemorials.com, AngelsOnline.com, and LifeRecorded.com allow users to create websites that range from simple text messages for the dead to elaborate multimedia presentations.

There's even a website called SeeMeRot.com purporting to offer viewers a 'coffin cam,' which would win the award for most macabre, except that it is a hoax. Sooner or later, someone will try the real thing and-given the fear and fascination we bring to death-will be both wildly successful and widely vilified.

Our real-time rituals for death reflect our discomfort and fear. 'We have substituted celebrations of the life for traditional wakes,' explains Sandra M. Gilbert, professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and author of Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (Norton, 2006). Cremation, she notes, is increasingly popular because 'people don't want to be in the presence of a body.'

To make matters worse, Gilbert says, our culture suffers from a general prohibition of grief. Years ago, she explains, 'there was a funeral and a body and a coffin and mourning and weeping and wailing. Today, we don't encourage people to weep and scream, even if they want to. We feel guilty because we don't know how to handle their behavior. Grief is embarrassing.'

Online, however, these prohibitions are loosened. What can't be expressed in the church pew at the memorial service comes out in torrents on the web.

'Alone with this glimmering computer screen,' says Gilbert, 'your grief and loss can rise up.' On memorial sites like the World Wide Cemetery, there are plenty of 'life celebrations,' but there are also what can only be called e-mails to the dead. Year after year, for instance, a young girl sends messages to her murdered aunt: 'There is so much stuff going on right now I wish you were here. You would know how to fix it.'

These looser standards have caused problems on some online memorial sites. The website Legacy.com has hired a squadron of 'screeners' to vet messages sent to memorials on the site. The messages range from petty insults to full-blown accusations of incest and other crimes, reports the New York Times (Nov. 5, 2006). Most common are the memorial messages from secret lovers.

Still, in the openness of online grieving, Robert A. Neimeyer sees the seeds of a healthy process. Neimeyer is the director of psychotherapy research in the psychology department at the University of Memphis and editor of Death Studies, an international academic journal that concerns itself with death, dying, and bereavement.

'Many people feel that it is existentially and socially useful to gather in a setting in which we confront our collective vulnerability,' he says. Memorial websites and online bereavement support groups may provide that setting, he maintains. 'But whether you achieve a real sense of community is an open question,' he adds. 'Are mediated relationships satisfying surrogates for face-to-face relationships, in which you literally can be held in someone's arms?'

That's a question that has a wider significance than how we grieve our dead. It may be true that in our relatively isolated and repressed existences, online communication fosters a more open expression of emotion. But until someone comes up with a working coffin webcam, online grieving is still several keystrokes removed from the ghastly truth of our own mortality.