Does the Web make death better?
We all deal with death in different ways. You can run from it, but you can’t hide. Inevitably, we all have to embrace it, and whether you do that with a smile or a scream or something in between is largely up to you.
The Halloween holiday can be traced back to 16th century Europe, when it celebrated the night before All Saints’ Day (November 1), an event commemorating those who have been purified in Heaven. All Souls Day (November 2) celebrates those departed still awaiting this purification. The Mexican Day of the Dead, now celebrated throughout much of the Americas, spans these two days and is a time to remember friends and family members who have found their paths out of this world.
Now that this season of grappling with the Grim Reaper is upon us, we thought we’d pause to reflect on ten ways in which the Web is helping our culture to deal with death.
Something deep inside us longs for a place to go and “visit” lost friends and family. Cremation and spreading ashes continues to become popular in our culture, and some people are less concerned with having physical remains to visit than a location associated with the deceased. For such folks, I-Tomb offers a sort of virtual grave. Visitors can decorate memorials with on-screen candles and flowers. Unlike a traditional grave, an I-Tomb site can also showcase photo and video highlights of the deceased’s life, and visitors can leave their thoughts and memories as tributes. I-Tombs require an annual subscription, but the host company, I-Postmortem, states that this is to ensure that the sites stay active and available over time. Interestingly, people can construct their own I-Memorial site while alive, and this will convert to an I-Tomb upon their demise.
The Darwin Awards
Most of us have received Darwin Award lists via email, but not as many know that there is a site dedicated to the tragically hilarious annual list of extreme, accidental self-annihilation. For example, the 2010 winner was a 40-year-old Korean man in a motorized wheelchair who just barely missed catching an elevator. In frustration, he rammed the doors repeatedly—until they broke and he tumbled to his death down the elevator shaft. (Yes, the video is online.) If nuggets like these make you feel better about your own odds for gene propagation, stifle your sniggers and remember not to try these feats at home...or anywhere else.
Cremation Solutions Urns
While not a site for the dead per se, this deserves honorable mention just for its creepy factor. For sure, classical artists used to sculpt busts of the dead all the time, but those were typically stylized and, well, monochromatic marble. These Cremation Solutions urns are reconstructed with advanced facial analysis tools from one or two photographs rendered into 3D. As you can see, the end result is an eerily lifelike head containing the departed’s ashes. In this example, we nearly expect the mounted president to open his mouth and chant “Yes, we can!” For replicas requiring hair, Cremation Solutions recommends adding a wig. A full-sized urn costs $2,600.
“Alas, poor Yorick!” As Shakespeare knew all too well when writing Hamlet, no object has us contemplate death more profoundly or immediately than a human skull. Back in 2007, designer and consultant Noah Scalin started a blog project called Skull-a-Day in which he posted various artistic looks at skulls. The project even resulted in an art book called (not surprisingly) SKULLS, which includes 150 of his year’s best. Since that first year, the site has continued to grow with outside editors and contributors. Take a tour and reflect on the links between art and mortality. And yes, now you have another use for duct tape.
Smithsonian Latino Center’s Theater of the Dead
Speaking of the Day of the Dead, leave it to the esteemed Smithsonian Institute to create a site that is as fun as it is educational in exploring the Hispanic holiday. From the roots of the holiday in Aztec, Mayan, and Toltec cultures to symbolism surrounding the four elements in the “ofrenda” (the offering altar) to Dia de la Muertos lesson plans for students, this site looks simple, but it’s brimming with background to help make the event more meaningful. For even more, be sure not to miss the Day of the Dead blog here .
Isaiah Owens’ Funeral Home and Elizabeth Heyert
We all like to have ourselves Photoshopped a bit before putting our pictures on public display. Is it such a leap to want a similar makeover before being publicly presented at our funeral? Enter Isaiah Owens and his incredible talents for beautifying the dead. Based in Harlem and tied to traditions of the South in which corpses are often ornately dressed for burial, Owens is in part a plastic surgeon for the dead. His work was profiled by photographer Elizabeth Heyert and shown at the Edwynn Houk gallery. Her images blur the line between vital life and eternal death.
It’s easy to poke fun at death, but often we laugh in order not to cry. Children may lack the tools to effectively cope with the death of people they know, and adults may not always understand how to help them through the experience. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) formulated a lengthy site after the 9/11 attacks designed to help people understand the beliefs and practices of various American sub-cultures, and this material comes from that site. It is designed for schools but can be useful for anyone trying to help kids through their fears and coping.
“The purpose of this web site is to provide information about death in the most objective way. Know your enemy!” And so DearDeath does, in its own banner-ridden, glitchy way. From statistics on the causes of death (the longest living vulture went for 117 years—who knew?) to a rundown of “death creatures” from around the world, this site has a tremendous amount of barely-cited information if you have the patience to excavate it. Our favorite area in the site is under Death Rituals > Universal, which links to many intriguing essays on death practices from various world cultures.
I have the honor of having interviewed Ray Kurzweil twice (his chapter is in the free sample), and I’m sending you to his Fantastic Voyage book site not to hawk his product but because it’s the easiest way to find the inventor and artificial intelligence pioneer’s links and resources for health and longevity. In short, Kurzweil believes that technology will soon be able to save us from death. He’s even said that he wants someday to retrieve his father’s DNA, use near future scanning methods to mine his own memory, and in so doing bring his father back from the grave, after a fashion. Kurzweil is a serious academic and technologist, and if you share his belief that death may not be the final, inevitable resolution, look into his thoughts on extending health today in anticipation of tomorrow’s coming man-machine Singularity.
For better or worse, much of our modern lives and relationships get encapsulated and archived on social media sites, especially Facebook. When someone dies, it is increasingly common for friends to mourn publicly on the deceased’s profile page. To ensure that the page stays live and searchable, Facebook will (after receiving proof of death) memorialize the profile, meaning to lock the page and still make it available to existing friends. Verified immediate family can request to have the page deleted. Memorialization won’t stop Facebook from still suggesting that you tag a deceased person in uploaded photos, but it will act as an ongoing tribute in an online forum that was often showcased an intimate look inside the departed’s life.