Superhighway to Heaven

Critiques of various Web sites.
May 29 1997 3:30 AM

Superhighway to Heaven

The eerie stillness of cemeteries in cyberspace.

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Cemeteries are not for the dead, but for the living. From the lonely widower who makes a weekly pilgrimage to the grave site to the sequined, sideburned fanatics at their annual Graceland vigil, people find comfort in the physical space of cemeteries, which, with their rolling lawns and rows of stone slabs, offer a tangible connection to souls departed. But now that the virtual seems tangible and connections are high-speed, can it be long before Information Age mourners start mouse-clicking to their dearly departed?

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Virtual cemeteries are already here. They are neither simply funeral businesses that happen to have created home pages nor online tributes to traditional cemeteries--though those exist, too. Rather, virtual cemeteries are part of a network of funeral-related sites that set up pages for the deceased, allowing bereaved Websurfers to pay their respects without the schlep over to Shady Acres. Like real cemeteries, most sites charge (starting at about $10 a year) to set up a virtual plot, which typically includes a photo, a bio, and reminiscences about the person. Most also let you limit access to those friends and family who know a private password. So you end up paying more if you don't want anyone to see it--a bid for privacy on the increasingly well-traveled Internet.

The Net, after all, seems like the last place to fashion an intimate, solemn space, but that intimacy is what even the open-to-the-public Web sites are after. Virtual plots are more than a quick alternative to the graveside visit or a way to introduce your dead friend to the rest of the world. They're a hotlink to heaven, complete with interactive features: For example, some offer you the ability to post messages to your dearly deceased. The Cemetery Gate, "a peaceful, serene place where people come to remember their loved ones," hopes that "when you leave this place, you will be refreshed, have a new vigor and be resolute in your desire to live your life with full measure." Some sites encourage you to send flowers--virtual ones: Send in your order, and a bouquet will appear on the screen in your beloved's honor. And when you visit a site on DeathNET, you can choose from a selection of somber background music "[t]o enhance your experience."

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T hat their patrons seem oblivious to outside Web traffic is what makes the pages seem especially creepy. In contrast to the frenetic, animated antics of most commercial sites, many virtual cemeteries front themselves with a phone-booklike alphabetical directory of names framed by a willow tree or a sunset. Click on a name, and (chances are) you will encounter messages addressed directly to a dead person, often remarkably conversational--recounting the details of the funeral, apologizing for trivial things, or providing updates on mutual friends. You feel as if you are eavesdropping on some strangers' e-mail exchange rather than witnessing a wake. Odd, considering that cybermourners surely must know that the Web attracts voyeurs like a rib roast does flies.

Yet these sites seem focused on higher purposes, like supernatural communication. People are especially unabashed about reaching out to dead pets. The Virtual Pet Cemetery, which invites you to "immortalize your beloved pet in the tombs of cyber-space for eternity," is filled with don't-know-what-you've-got-till-its-gone testaments to furry critters of the past. Grieving for a certain "Spanky," one Websurfer writes:

Oh I remember the telephone cords you used to eat, The funny way that you walked (so ungraceful and un-feline-like), That blank stare, so void and yet so characteristic of you, Would touch upon my heart as you meowed.

The Virtual Memorial Garden (which doesn't charge to post a memorial) predicts that virtual cemeteries will revolutionize our relationships with the dead. "Perhaps you will see cyberpyramids and datasphinxes appearing. Certainly there will be electronic crypts as pages devoted to whole families are assembled." There is already quite a community of the deceased developing on the Web. Many sites cordon off special areas for victims of drunken driving, AIDS, or war. The World Wide Cemetery also sorts out those who committed suicide or donated organs. Inmemoria even features a "Pantheon." Virtual cemeteries seem eager to play the role of Information Age churches--providing an atmosphere of community support; promoting private, spiritual reflection; and assuring immortality to boot.

In the end, the Internet turns out to be a great resting place. Dead people don't seem any more dead than anyone else in cyberspace, where everyone we connect with is disembodied. Anonymous, infinite in its variety, and located somewhere that appears both real and yet not quite of this world, cyberspace is not too different from the places we imagine people go when they die. And with its easy access and defiance of time and space, it is the perfect place for us to visit them.

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