An electronic medium to reach the dearly departed

Through a growing network of memorial sites dedicated to the deceased, the Internet is a way for friends and family to convey their thoughts to loved ones who have left the physical world.

6 min read
Call it the World Wide Ouija Board.

Through a growing network of memorial sites dedicated to the deceased, the Internet has become the medium of choice for friends and family to convey their thoughts to loved ones who have departed the physical world.

Although it's impossible to say exactly how many people partake in such rituals, experts estimate that hundreds of mourners write personal emails to the dead each month--letters of longing from mothers, boyfriends, teachers, neighbors, sympathetic strangers and others. Many memorials land in public tribute sites on the World Wide Web--a medium that psychotherapists say has become a symbolic connector between the real world and the netherworld.

Consider the case of high school student Cole Stevens. The 16-year-old enjoyed Legos, "Harry Potter" and hanging around with his older brother and sister before his unexpected death earlier this year.

Cole's mother, Carol Ann Skalany Fritzsche, penned a heart-wrenching eulogy to her son shortly after his passing. In the following months, more than 100 people from around the country submitted letters to an electronic guest book--similar in spirit to those found at funeral parlors during visitation ceremonies.

Carla Welsh of McHenry, Ill., was among dozens of signers who spoke directly to Cole in her sorrowful email.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about you," Welsh wrote on Sept. 27. "I keep telling myself that it will get easier--when in reality it's not! My boys continue to wonder why this horrible thing had to happen to you. But I remind them of the beautiful place you are at right now and that makes them feel much better. You are still in our prayers, Cole."

For reasons of their own, a growing number of people feel comfortable addressing the deceased through email. Perhaps some believe that spirits surf the Web and oversee their online memorials. Maybe they believe that the Internet works as a kind of electronic Ouija board, allowing communication with the ghosts of their loved ones.

A widow's journal
Most experts agree that email to the deceased is decidedly less ghoulish. They say it's the modern-day version of a widow's journal--a way to telegraph words and sentiments that survivors didn't have a chance to express in the dying days of a loved one. They say it's similar to stamped letters to the deceased with the address "Heaven"--letters the U.S. Postal Service receives each year by the hundreds.

Andrea Lurier, program director of The Caring Place, a Pittsburgh-based agency providing support for children who have lost a family member, equated such email to handwritten messages tied to helium-filled balloons. Her organization sends off balloons whenever children feel the need to tell something to a family member who has died.

"Even though as adults we don't know how far the balloons are going to get, there's some kind of special symbolism there," Lurier said. "What you always wonder about--especially if you're a kid--is that maybe an angel will pick up the balloon and pass the message on. I'm not an expert on the Internet, but I think it's sort of the same with email."

Regardless of whether angels wing email to heaven or spirits haunt the Web, many grief counselors encourage the practice of emailing the dead. They say it's especially helpful for people who cannot get over the most debilitating parts of grieving.

The Internet's relative anonymity makes it a perfect vehicle for expressing mental anguish--especially for those who might feel uncomfortable in support groups or for those who can write better than they can talk to another person face to face. And the fact that people can craft memorials to the deceased a month or a year after the funeral makes it more convenient than a traditional eulogy at the cemetery, when survivors are often paralyzed by sadness.

Psychotherapist Tom Golden, an expert in grief therapy who operates Webhealing.com, said the Internet is a modern miracle for people who cannot otherwise express loss.

Golden himself created an online memorial in 1995 to his father, who had died a year earlier. He also claims to have created the Internet's first "honor site" to the deceased, which now houses more than 700 memorials classified into children, parents and loved ones.

He theorizes that people write email to the deceased because modern American culture, focused on attaining happiness at all costs, has crippled our ability to grieve.

"One hundred and twenty years back, we had bereavement handkerchiefs, bereavement stationery, bereavement objects. We lost it all," Golden said. "Then the Internet comes along, and it's like a petri dish--all this stuff will grow there. If you're going to touch into this pain, you've got to feel safe. After a car accident, when someone puts their arms around the victim, that enables the victim to cry. A lot of people feel safe on the Internet."

While cultural changes may predispose people to email the dead, technology has dramatically popularized the trend. Sites such as Yahoo's GeoCities division encourage people to build their own sites and gather email from readers. Building or contributing to the sites requires relatively scant knowledge of computer programming or code writing but can yield sophisticated-looking publications.

"My son, you are gone/My heart knows it is true," wrote a mother grieving to her lost son, Jarrett, on a GeoCities site with a heavenly backdrop of clouds. "But my mind's eye never lets me/Stop seeing you."

The business of grief
Businesses are also fueling the trend, as Internet bellwethers rush into the niche. Yahoo announced Thursday an agreement with FinalThoughts.com, a site dedicated to every aspect of death and dying, from estate planning and debates about the afterlife to online support groups for grieving survivors and memorial sites.

Such sites have become so popular that a cottage industry specializing in creating and maintaining personalized memorial sites was born in the late '90s. A major player in the niche is Legacy.com, originally conceived by two Chicago-area businessmen as an online clearinghouse for newspaper obituaries from around the United States.

Founded in 1998, Evanston, Ill.-based Legacy outgrew its initial business plan and is now trying to become the leading portal for memorializing the deceased. It charges $195 to build and maintain a "Legacy Life Story" memorial site, which includes a biography, eulogy, poem, five photos and a guest book of unlimited length. It charges $49 to keep on file a death notice longer than the traditional 60 days, along with a guest book.

Legacy's communications director, Bill Paige, said that he was surprised at the number of people who write letters directly to the deceased via the popular site.

"Not to be overly sensitive, but it's tough to sit here all day and not to break out crying once in a while," Paige said. "It's so touching and heartfelt."

It's not surprising that corporations have glommed onto the trend. The $21 billion-per-year death industry is looking for new outlets as birth rates decline and people live longer--and tapping into a wired society's need to grieve is a no-brainer moneymaker, said Darryl J. Roberts, author of "Profits of Death" and an expert on the funeral industry.

"Online memorials are a whole new income stream, something the funeral industry didn't have five years ago, and they're going to take advantage of it if they can," Roberts said. "People are interested in seeing people's names in print, and they're interested in seeing that on the Internet. If it makes them feel better to spend that $200, they should do it. We all mourn in a different manner."

For Barbara Velard, mourning took the form of a Web page after her son died in a car accident in 1995.

"You have been gone 28 months now, will the pain ever go away?" Velard wrote in 1997. "Will I ever be able to think of you without the tears of loss? I don't know, but I do know I will always praise the Lord, for having given us the time we've had with you. You taught your father and I so much about life and love. Dylon, my son, this is something I have written about you to tell others what you were all about. Dad and I are so proud of the young man you had become. We will always cherish you in our hearts. Until we are all together again. Love Mom."