Digital Death ; Advocates Say the World Wide Web Has Changed the Way We Grieve

Article excerpt

SOME PEOPLE turn to the Internet to conquer boredom, to mingle in virtual electronic cocktail parties, or to map a vacation. For some, it's death that brings them online.

The Internet can let you:

* Build memorials that can survive through millennia, needing only electronic backup systems to survive.

* Reach out for the support of an understanding community in times of grief.

* Stroll through a marketplace where you can find funeral services, urns or a boat ride to scatter your ashes.

* Give you a voice in an uncensored open space, letting you explore fantasies, fears and emotions.

You can find newsgroups for the grieving, sites for bereaved parents, galleries of urns for the cremated and graveyards for favorite pets. You can find World Wide Web sites and newsgroups dedicated to genealogy and to updates on who's dead and who's not.

Newspapers, radio and television can announce a death, but in the world of mass media markets, substantial obituaries are reserved for the movers and shakers: political bigwigs, art collectors, hostile takeover geniuses and great baseball pitchers. The little people get a little bit of little type or nothing.

On the Web, post-mortem democracy rules. Perpetuated in cyberspace are the memories of Japanese fathers, Italian immigrant physicians, LSD guru Timothy O'Leary, AIDS victims, cats and puppies, German mothers, the never-too-dead Elvis, suicide victims from Texas, and Vietnam veterans.

The Lighthouse

Julie Jones, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Missouri at Columbia, died suddenly Oct. 8 in her sleep in a dorm room. Julie was a gifted jazz pianist, writer and singer, a fan of Tori Amos, and a fun, caring person. She was from Kirkwood, her parents' only child.

Her death was later diagnosed as the result of a cerebral aneurysm, a condition that leads to the weakening of an artery in the brain and its possible rupture. Her classmates and friends needed to talk about her death.

"I feel the horror that you feel when someone young and gifted dies," said Greg Foster, who taught Julie's English class at MU.

On the day of her death, Julie sent him an essay. It didn't quite fit the assignment, but it cast a strange light on her death. She wrote about an old story, one in which two radio operators at sea order each other to change course to avoid collision. The captain of a ship, a Navy carrier, stubbornly refuses to change course; the other operator is in charge of a lighthouse.

Julie wrote about fatalism: "Like the Navy carrier, many people are bullheaded in their ways of storming through life. They do not check to see if what they are headed into is more than they can handle."

Foster put Julie's essay on the Web, along with a page on which her friends and classmates can write about her. That's how the Web site came to be named The Lighthouse.

"I am shivering as I write this because I was sitting in this very chair when I last spoke to Julie," wrote Jo Ann Niebruegge, who met Julie i n August at school. She wrote about how they both were joining sororities, exchanged e-mail and how yet another round of college-death urban legends makes her sick.

The Web, some Internet dwellers say, revolutionizes the way people deal with death. What was once an intensely private experience now turns into an emotional electronic stream that people can share with thousands of others.

"It is a protest against the impersonal nature of society," Dennis Klas says of the death-related folklore sprouting online. Klas counsels for the Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement, one of the multitude of support groups in St. Louis and around the country where people share their experiences of dealing with death.

"People don't die at home. We don't see dead bodies anymore," he continues.

Our medical system has evolved to give us freedom from diseases and, therefore, longer lives. …