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Arlington National Cemetery debated allowing QR codes on tombstones. Does technology belong in cemeteries?

While most cemeteries allow QR codes on headstones, such as the one pictured above, Arlington National Cemetery does not. When the quick-response codes are scanned on a smartphone, a Web page launches with more details on the deceased. (Courtesy of Quiring Monuments)
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Cemeteries aren’t known as hotbeds of innovation. They are solemn places where traditions are followed and rules abound on everything regarding the size of headstone to the behavior of visitors.

Witness the outrage over Selfies at Funerals, a Web site collecting images of young people taking photos of themselves at funerals. (“Simply outrageous.” “Depressing.” “Apocalypse can’t come soon enough.”) When dealing with death, etiquette is paramount and new technology isn’t always welcome.

But with a proper touch, technology — in the form of QR codes — has found a small foothold on some tombstones. The benefit is allowing cemetery visitors to scan a QR code on their smartphone, and have instant access to an online obituary, photos of the deceased and more information.

The cemetery advisory committee of Arlington National Cemetery discussed the use of QR codes on headstones at its quarterly meeting this week, and decided to stick with its policy of not allowing QR codes at grave sites. A cemetery spokeswoman declined to elaborate on why the policy wasn’t changed.

“It’s something that’s worth discussing with the veteran’s community,” said Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We like the idea of telling the story of the individual buried there. A story that’s untold is a story that’s lost forever.” Davis emphasized the importance of ensuring the stories are accurate, and finding contributors to write the stories before moving forward with such a plan.

In a historical cemetery, QR codes could give visitors a greater depth of information and appreciation for those buried. Visiting students could receive a history lesson. Traditional headstones include limited details about the story of a person’s life.

QR codes on tombstones first drew significant attention in 2011 when a Seattle-based company, Quiring Monuments, began selling them in its quest for innovation.

“You’re growing or you’re dying. We always wanted to push the envelope and try new things,” said Jon Reece, the company’s general manager. Quiring Monuments settled on QR codes after considering near-field chips, and realizing the technology wouldn’t work with most phones available at the time.

Quiring Monuments will include a QR code at no extra charge with any individual purchase of a marker or monument. Reece says about 1 or 2 percent of the roughly 7,500 orders they receive a year for new markers or monuments include a request for a QR code. Customers can also buy a QR code to affix to an existing tombstone for $75. When the company sells to wholesalers, the price is $50 higher for markers and monuments that include a QR code.

Quiring Monuments, a privately-owned company of 40 employees, has yearly revenues of $5 million and ships its products worldwide. Reece says his company encounters occasional resistance from cemeteries, but has never had a cemetery  reject the use of a QR code.

“There’s a lot of tradition, there’s a lot of rules and regulations in cemeteries and rightfully so because they’re preserving legacies,” Reece said.

Rob Jones, the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery director, expects to expand the use of QR codes in 2014 from traditional graves to his columbarium wall, a 600-foot long structure that can hold about 9,000 urns. Because niches for storing remains aren’t actually purchased from the park, it retains additional say over how the wall is decorated.

The cemetery’s advisory board has given unanimous approval and Jones is waiting for approval from the municipal government so that he can allow expanded use of QR codes.

“The codes are so small, not much bigger than your thumbnail. So they’re not distracting from the overall look of the columbarium wall,” Jones said. “Everybody we’ve spoke to about it  thinks it’s a good idea and nice option to offer families.”

Given the pace of new developments in technology, it’s reasonable to see QR codes and the related Web site as temporal. The classic element of cemeteries, granite headstones, last for centuries. When dealing with something as permanent as death, should something less permanent be involved? While flowers, which last for days, are commonly left at graves, QR codes will have to keep working to find a wider reception.