Grief Goes Online

The boon and the bane of virtual bereavement


| Utne Reader March / April 2007



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.'