World Wide Wake?

The grim reaper makes a splash online

| November 30, 2006

Let's say you're in the midst of a month-long trip to Thailand, helping the Burmese refugees. Catching up on your email one day, a note from your mother informs you that your grandfather has just died. No need to fly home, it says, you can watch the service over the internet; you can even contribute memories and condolences on the web. It's no futuristic fantasy. A new wave of online funerals, memorial services, and tributes to the deceased makes attending a funeral as easy as logging onto a website.

The internet is becoming a new hotspot for grieving, Michelle Sipics reports for Dragonfire. After hearing of Animal Planet star Steve Irwin's death, Australians gathered in real places, planning memorials and vigils. But people from all over the world posted memories, chatted, and instant messaged about Irwin online, writes Sipics. Notably, 'in a virtual world called Mulgore,' inside the game World of Warcraft, 'trolls, orcs, undeads, and taurens were gathered near a small pool of water in the city of Thunder Bluff to hold their own memorial for the Crocodile Hunter.' Such memorial services are not out of the ordinary in the World of Warcraft, which dedicated gamers have played to death (literally, as two have succumbed in recent months to 'videogame related death'), reports Marc McEntegart for the tech-news site the Inquirer. In cases like this, fans from various corners of the world can find one another and relate their immediate reactions to such news.

In the real world, some funeral homes have expanded their offerings to include webcasts of services, catering to clients with kin far away, reports Ramin Ganeshram in another Dragonfire article. 'North America is extremely multicultural, and so at some point, almost any funeral home will find itself serving residents from other countries with family members who cannot attend,' says Bahman Motamed, co-founder of Toronto's The company also has served families in Israel, India, and Iran. English families 'scattered across the globe,' can also take advantage of such services, since a local crematorium recently installed a webcam, reports the UK daily, Peterborough Today.

Also contributing to the web-mourning scene are sites that pay homage to the departed as a top priority, writes Sipics. The website Eons, 'a MySpace for seniors,' provides death notifications and obituaries that can be customized by network members. MyDeathSpace, on the other hand, focuses on MySpace members who have died -- often teenagers or young adults -- with links to their profiles and information about them. The site's founder, Mike Patterson, maintains that the site's chief purpose is to 'teach viewers that life is fragile,' relays Sipics.

The spate of online mourning has spurred a discussion about the value of human contact in the grieving process. Some see webcast funeral services as 'a natural progression from weddings and newborn babies being shown to happy families online,' reports Peterborough Today. But many involved in the projects concur that virtual grieving will never console like the physical presence of fellow mourners. As Peterborough Community Church employee Caroline Cameron explains: 'Obviously, the most important thing at a funeral is the personal contact between family and friends, providing support at a traumatic time. This personal contact is always the first preference, but if this is not possible then it's possibly a good idea to give access to the funeral in this way.'

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