By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006
Days after his wife's death from inflammatory breast cancer in 2004, Michael Bloomer set up a Web page memorial. An old co-worker from Florida signed Kim Bloomer's online guest book. So did a high school classmate in Michigan.
For Bloomer, a retired government worker who lives in Dumfries, the memorial page became a soothing place where he could read stories, receive condolences and even reach out to his wife by posting his own messages: "Hi Honey. . . . It's only been about a month since you left, but it seems like ages since we laughed and loved when the days were normal and you were without pain. I miss you so much it hurts inside."
Bloomer says he frequented the online memorial in the first year to read new postings or to reread old ones. "It was kind of like a lasting tribute so that anybody could go on there at any time."
As the country observes the memory of those who died in its wars, online memorials have altered acts of bereavement and become palliative retreats for some who grieve. Web sites dedicated to the deceased now number in the millions in the United States, and for those left behind, posting stories, photos and videos is a way of keeping a permanent record of the person's life. Material added to mark important days such as birthdays, Mother's Day and Memorial Day, or even notes left by well-wishing strangers help the page evolve, so the memorial itself can take on a kind of second life.
Viewers use the Web sites to find and comfort one another -- not only to facilitate communication from far-flung or long-lost friends who couldn't attend a funeral, but also to send messages from one dead soldier's wife to another, from one mourning mother to another or among those galvanized to fight a disease.
"I know it helps me grieve," said Williamsburg police officer Mark Schafer, whose son, Michael, an Army staff sergeant, died in battle in Afghanistan on July 25. Legacy.com, the site that hosts Michael Schafer's memorial, offers a free service for military personnel who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. "It helps me grieve when I see his pictures," Schafer said. "I feel proud that [people] can say some of things they say about him. People who don't even know him can go on there and tell him that they were proud."
While many non-Western cultures build rituals around death that allow a person to grieve over time, in highly individualistic societies, losing a loved one can be isolating, some psychologists say, which may be why some turn to the Web to reach outside their traditional social network.
"When death happens, we're so alone," said George Bonanno, a psychologist at Columbia University. "It would be nice if we had a sense of community, and maybe that's what the Internet provides."
Some sites such as Legacy.com, Memory-of.com and Mem.com have been around for about a decade and provide software tools for users to customize their Web pages. Legacy.com and Memory-of.com charge one-time fees of $50 to $100 for a permanent place on their sites. There are other, smaller sites started by funeral homes; still others are set up by individuals who purchase domain names in honor of the deceased. Another site, called MyDeathSpace, is less a memorial site than a bulletin board that posts stories about deceased members who kept profiles on the social networking site MySpace.
In some cases, dealing with death online is no prettier than it might be in real life: Companies that maintain memorial sites occasionally find themselves facing its darker side -- bitter divorces, sibling rivalries and inheritance feuds sometimes try to play themselves out through online memorials. Online sites, therefore, need their equivalent of groundskeepers to root out advertisers or tasteless postings.
Most of the 75-person staff at Legacy.com, which maintains obituaries online for 300 U.S. newspapers, monitors postings before they go online. Profanity and political commentary are not allowed. Nor are postings from former mistresses, which employees have gotten adept at catching, said Hayes Ferguson, chief operating officer for the Evanston, Ill., company that hosts about 50,000 permanent memorials. "We can't get involved in family squabbles," she said.
But such instances are relatively rare, even on Web sites where notes are not filtered before they are posted, online memorialists say.
Executives at major memorial Web site companies say users often develop a close relationship with their Web page, visiting it as often as three or four times a day for years after the person's death. Traffic is heaviest usually in the morning and evening, as people start and end each day thinking about their loved ones.
The founders of Memory-of.com originally envisioned an online photo gallery for the deceased, but it now hosts forums for grieving people to talk to one another or to seek support.
"It's become a lifeline for a lot of families," said Henry Chamberlain, chief executive of Memory-of.com. In its early days, when the Web site went dark for a few hours, panicked users would e-mail and call, feeling as if they were reliving the loss of their loved one, he said.
The Internet's constant availability makes it possible for people to grieve in their own time.
"You can't tell someone when they should process their loss," said Scott Mindrum, president, chief executive and founder of Making Everlasting Memories LLC, which runs Mem.com. The company started in 1995 as an archive site. "What we didn't know was the bereavement value" of allowing people to create their own site, he said. "People face into their grief," to the point where family members sometimes hug the monitor when a video is played.
The death business can be a touchy one, especially when it comes to marketing, said Legacy.com's Ferguson. In early days of the Internet, some casket makers and funeral homes tried to advertise online -- which struck some users as tactless. Instead, most major sites may have a small ad for a florist on the home page but no advertisements on the guestbooks, she said.
Legacy.com wasn't sure how to react after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and when the war in Iraq began, Ferguson said. "We quite frankly didn't know how to respond. We didn't want to take advantage of the situation," but within days, people started asking for online services for those people, she said.
Dawn Cepero said she grieves mostly through the memorial Web sites she set up after her 4-year-old daughter, Caylee, died of leukemia last March.
For Cepero, the sites fulfill many functions. She uses them to claim that toxins in the well water serving her old home in Thonotosassa, Fla., caused her daughter's sudden, acute illness. She warns other parents to get their children blood-tested for the disease. She uploads every photo and video of her daughter for safekeeping. She helps raise funds for other children with leukemia. And while she continues to seek solace in all those activities, she also reads daily condolences she receives from other parents who leave her notes on various Web sites.
"I get probably 25 a day," said Cepero, who said those contacts helped her compile an e-mail list of people to help her with fundraising. "You feel like no one's forgotten, and no one's going to forget," said Cepero, who said that in her everyday life she seldom encounters people who have lost a child and can relate to her. "I probably would have lost my mind if I hadn't done something."