Toward an Eco-Friendly Death

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |


Mourning Becomes Electric

Cremains, sealed in an urn and placed in a columbarium, take up a fraction of the space that traditional cemetery burial does. But are any physical remains really necessary for the grieving process? Couldn’t we just, say, feed bodies to piranhas?

A few years ago, Michael Patterson, a Bay Area resident, heard on the news about a local father who had murdered his two teenage daughters. Out of curiosity, he went on-line and found the victims’ MySpace pages. “I was intrigued by the comments left by these dead girls’ friends,” Patterson said. He began looking up the pages, or profiles, of others who had died, amassing a large collection of sites. In 2005, he launched MyDeathSpace.com, a hyperlink hub to the deceased’s profiles.

With hundreds of millions of registered users on social-networking websites like MySpace and Facebook, it’s statistically inevitable that some of them will die. When they do, their profiles on these sites often remain, outliving their original user.

Friends commonly use these profiles as a space of public mourning, posting messages as though speaking directly to the dead users. “i hope you can see how much you’re missed by all up there somewhere,” a user named “Kevin” posted to one dead member’s page.

It’s common for mourners to try to speak to their deceased loved ones by leaving notes at their graves or at churches, for example, or by talking to them, whether aloud, at their graves, or silently, in the mourners’ heads. “People do it because they’re not willing to let go yet,” said Dr. J. Shep Jeffreys, author of Helping Grieving People — When Tears are Not Enough. But mourning publicly, as on websites, serves another purpose, tapping into a primitive need for people to share the news of a death. “It’s something people do as a basic instinct,” Jeffreys said. “We need everybody to know.”

Interactive obituaries and online memorials, on sites like Legacy.com and Making Everlasting Memories, have existed for several years. But now that the phenomenon of Internet grieving has become, albeit accidentally, a part of social networking sites, some of the most heavily trafficked sites on the web, mourning-on-the-web’s profile has risen considerably. Since its launch, Patterson’s archive of the deceased has catalogued more than 10,000 profiles. Some of the most recent belong to soldiers who died in Iraq.

He hopes the site can serve an educational function. A large number of the deaths he documents are the result of alcohol-related car accidents, and he hopes that teens who visit the site will be scared straight into safe and sober driving. Despite Patterson’s intent, MyDeathSpace.com, which Patterson said receives 10,000-15,000 unique visits a day — compared to the tens of millions MySpace receives — received a lot of criticism, especially early on.

“People said, ‘you’re exploiting the dead,’” he said, because his website sells t-shirts and features advertising. “I’m not rich or anything from the site. I need advertising to keep the site up,” he added. “We’re not doing anything wrong or illegal.”

In fact, having a catalog of mourning sites can benefit the larger community. Humans survive as a group, Jeffreys said, and the group perceives death as a threat to its collective survival. “There is a tribal need to pull together and show the strength of the group when someone has died, to show how we will survive,” Jeffreys said. “Putting it on the Internet broadens it globally. You can have millions of people sharing in the loss.” By mourning online, grievers also offer the opportunity for other mourners to see their memorials, and that can provide the mourner with the feeling of being connected to others, Jeffreys said.

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