The way we mourn has changed, but the purpose remains the same. In 13th-century Europe it was thought that more masses said on behalf of the deceased increased their likelihood of leaving purgatory. Up to four masses could be held, a commoner playing the role of the deceased once the actual body was buried. Staged photographs of the dead were in vogue in the Victorian era, as was keeping a lock of their hair knotted in a locket.
The methods of mourning change for a number of reasons, but it’s really a question without a specific answer—how do you adequately honor a life? And how do you do it today, when we pretend death doesn’t exist in the first place? Well, there’s always the way we cope with everything else: technology.
In the forthcoming book Digital Legacy and Interaction: Post-Mortem Issues, professor Candi Cann of Baylor University discusses “virtual” memorials and their implementation in various countries. Her particular focus is on QR codes (short for Quick Response). They are the patterns of black pixels that you’ve probably seen on a Subway ad or cereal box. When scanned by a smartphone, QR codes lead to a site with additional information about the item you’re scanning. Now, in Japan and China, QR codes are popping up in a more somber spot: tombstones.
"People who don’t want to memorialize basically want to be able to have a conversation with the deceased—they want to keep the memory alive."
QR codes premiered in the Japanese market in 1994 and found their way onto tombstones in 2008. The codes serve multiple purposes: when scanned, they lead to a website with photos and information about the deceased and allow for users to give virtual gifts, like food, incense, or a Buddhist funeral chant. In addition, Cann writes that the coding expands the traditional limitations of physical space, meaning if family members are unable to travel to the grave site, they can access the same virtual page through the Internet. While, traditionally, Japanese families keep a small altar honoring their dead for a year, the virtual altar shifts “the physical necessity of a household altar to the virtual realm.”
In the U.S. the funeral industry remains within the private sector, but tombstone technology in Asia is largely driven by the government. In China, where the government owns and maintains cemeteries, QR codes are seen as a creative solution to the serious dilemma of land shortage for a burgeoning population. For inland populations, the government has placed QR codes on the burial sites; the deceased remain in individual graves for seven years then move to mass graves, “with Internet memorials set up to maintain offerings, reducing foot traffic during the annual Qing Ming holiday to honor the dead.” Families who choose to bury their dead this way are offered a financial incentive, as the situation of land usage is considered a major environmental concern.
Could we experience a similar trend in the States? “I don’t see QR software taking off here like in Asia,” Cann told me from her office in Texas, “I think within 15 years everyone will have a virtual memorials. For the actual method, I’m not sure what will take off.”
For now the most popular choice for Americans, according to Cann, is a profile already filled with photographs and memories: Facebook. Funeral parlors, noticing the trend, have tried to stay competitive by offering personalized websites and elegant QR codes carved into granite or wood as part of an overall funeral package, but they have had little success. Why pay for anything new when it’s all already online? Facebook has certain policies for these profiles—an active site means you can still get Farmville requests from a dead grandmother—so you now can choose to “memorialize” a page. That locks the site, so users can see it, but nothing can be changed or posted. Still, some refuse, because, as Cann said, “People who don’t want to memorialize basically want to be able to have a conversation with the deceased—they want to keep the memory alive.”
These Facebook pages also allow people to express the grief they hold back in front of others, Cann said, explaining in part their popularity. These days, the public face of mourning is minimized—months of wearing black is rare, and there is an emphasis on privacy. “We’re disappearing the dead and not allowing the conversation to occur,” Cann said. “One-hundred-fifty years ago you would wear mourning clothes; now you don’t get recognized publicly when you’re grieving. Now, society expresses itself through technology. There’s no place to mourn, so we go there, making our private conversations public to our social network.”
With the deceased becoming ever more virtualized, won’t it be that much harder to ever actually “let go?” But maybe not letting go is the point.
“I see the notion of letting go really a product of industrialization, this prioritizing of work and production,” Cann said. “I don’t know if it’s important to let go, but rather reinsert the dead into our world so we can move on with these missing pieces in our lives.”