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"Websites gain growing share of mourners"
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
January 15, 2006
By: S.L. Wykes
Newspapers, radio and television quickly spread the word when East Palo Alto police officer Richard May died Jan. 7, allegedly shot by a suspected gang member. His funeral Thursday attracted 1,000 to San Jose's HP Pavilion. And all week long, condolence messages have been streaming into an online guest book -- more than 500 of them.

They're not just from local friends and acquaintances, but also from a police officer in Austin, Texas, a family friend in Louisiana and a Sunnyvale woman who wrote to say she'd lost her dad, too.

Their thoughts are there for anyone to read, and the flood of appreciations and condolences for May and his family can be preserved forever, to be read for solace any time of day or night.

Never has it been so easy to step into a community of mourning. A couple of clicks of a computer mouse and a grieving family will receive the electronic version of the frozen casserole on the front step or the carefully-worded card -- once traditional signs of sympathy.

Technology has taken the grief-stricken by the hand and is leading them into a world where the loss of ordinary citizens is shared worldwide.

One of the largest and oldest in the online memorials business, Illinois-based Legacy.com, now hosts guest books for a million people each year -- about half of all the people who die in the United States, spokeswoman Hayes Ferguson said.

Others -- from funeral homes to non-profits -- are entering the emerging marketplace, adding audio and video presentations as a standard part of the memorial package.

"This is what every generation has done," said Ken Doka, senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America and author of dozens of books and articles on grief. "The pyramids were built as a symbol of immortality, and in a sense, they worked."

That memorials have gone on the Net, he said, should be no more surprising than the transition once made from barren churchyard burials to plots in lushly landscaped cemeteries.

Death and its ceremonies, Doka said, are just another piece of life society processes with technology.

They're also big business. Legacy.com, founded eight years ago by two young entrepreneurs, uses newspapers as its conduit, offering free online pages to people who buy paid print obituaries. Contracts with 235 newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Mercury News, have placed the company at the top of the online obituary heap. Its guest books stay online for a year, and a $79 payment makes them permanent.

But hosting these guest books requires sensitivity. Legacy.com employs 40 people to read through the 400,000 guest book entries received each month before they are posted. About 3 to 5 percent of the submitted messages are withheld because of offensive content or other reasons, Ferguson said.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has offered Legacy.com's online guest book service for more than five years, said Ken Riddick, the paper's vice president for interactive media. "That editing service was appealing," he said. "The guest book is not a place for ugly comments."

Legacy.com's employees leave syntax and grammar alone. "The beauty is they are written in the person's voice. It's powerful to read," Ferguson said. "We don't want it to sound like Associated Press copy."

What Legacy.com didn't anticipate was that the guest books would attract not just family and friends, but also others who had experienced loss. In many cases, a memorial page becomes a place to send messages to the lost loved one.

Almost a year after the death in a car accident of Lynbrook High School student Tammy Chen, her friends are still sharing their feelings. "I don't know when it'll actually become real," one recent message reads. "I hope you know that everyone, no matter how long its been, misses you and loves you very much."

Eighty-two messages are posted on her Web guest book.

Tammy's brother, Yen, said last week that the response his family received in the guest book "made it seem like she was important, it showed that people cared. That really helped our family."

Providing a place to mark the lives of ordinary people is a large part of why another online memorial site, Memory-of.com, was begun, said Henry Chamberlain, chief executive of the site's parent company, London-based Libraryoflife.com. Its founder first posted a memorial to his brother so his young nieces and nephews would have photo memories of their father.

"He thought everyone should have the same," Chamberlain said. "If you're rich and famous you have a book written about you. The idea was to have everybody have a place in history that will be there -- never removed and never lost."

After Sept. 11, 2001, memorial Web sites became a popular home to perpetually honor those who died in the terrorist attacks.

The Internet's built-in reach is also part of the appeal. "This country is a lot more mobile. A lot of family and friends are across the country and would never see the obit in print," said Riddick of the Star Tribune.

That messages are posted to these sites from strangers, who go on sometimes to reveal their own losses, does not surprise Katherine Ashenburg, author of "The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die."

"These message books are filling some need," she said. "Some human emotion is being satisfied. It's very ironic and weird that it's easier to do for a stranger than for our own family. But that's the freedom the Net gives you."

Almost 10 years after his daughter's death in a small town near Los Angeles, Dee Alstatt still receives messages on her site. There have been thousands over the years. Now that he has found a way to live with her loss, other grieving parents often ask his help through the guest book messages.

"They ask me, 'How do we face this?'" he said. "I feel their pain." And, he tells them, "I'm here if you want to talk."

Ashenburg understands the phenomenon first-hand -- the unexpected death of her daughter's fiance prompted her book. And all the recollections, condolences and offers of help that came then -- whether made first-hand or online -- have the same value that funerals and memorials have always had.

"It's a sense of sorrow shared," she said. "You know you're not the only person who appreciated him -- and that you're in a community."

Please address all press inquiries to
contact@memory-of.com.


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