Academic journal article Generations

Here Today and Cyberspace Tomorrow: Memorials and Bereavement Support on the Web

Academic journal article Generations

Here Today and Cyberspace Tomorrow: Memorials and Bereavement Support on the Web

Article excerpt

Soon after the Internet became available to the public, most forms of human interaction began appearing online, with tributes to the dead and discussions of grief no exception (Rheingold, 1993). This article will examine methods for memorializing the dead and attaining bereavement support on the World Wide Web, noting where possible the extent to which older people make use of each option. However, most web services are so new that very little is known about who uses them.

PERSONAL WEB MEMORIALS

My students and I have been studying web memorials since late 1996. Web memorials to the dead were abundant then and have increased in number and grown more diverse since. Web memorials allow the bereaved to honor their dead in their own way and at their own time, to visit the memorial whenever they choose, and to share with others memories and information about the deceased person.

Web memorials vary in many ways and are created by a wide range of people with different levels of skill and expertise. The most laborintensive form of web memorialization is the web page created and posted by bereaved individuals. Because individual memorials are often posted as freestanding web pages, they are difficult for researchers to access. Consequently, we know very little about the frequency with which they are created or the characteristics of the people who create them. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people who already have web pages at the time of bereavement create memorial web pages to honor their dead. In some instances, an existing web page is revised to become a memorial. One of our survey participants noted that as part of her family web page, she had created a section for the child that she carrying. When that child was stillborn, the web page became a place for her family and friends to mourn their loss (Roberts et al., 2000).

With no common cultural rules dictating their content, length, or the accepted symbols to employ, web memorials vary according to their creator's tastes, needs, and computer skills. Some memorials are very simple, similar to grave markers, showing a simple graphic (such as a picture of a bouquet) with the person's name and dates of birth and death. On the other hand, some web memorials are elaborate and include music, moving images (for example, angels fluttering their wings), pictures and videos of the dead, and long tributes to them (sometimes the equivalent of several typewritten pages). One memorial starts with the picture of a preschool boy, his birth and death dates, and links to chapters about him. The chapters ("Meet Jonathan," "The Nightmare Begins," "Painful Arrangements" and "Life Without Jonathan") are filled with photographs, and the pages are edged with images of toy trains. Like many other web memorials, this one has a guest book, where anyone can record messages or read the notes of others.

Freestanding web memorials can be linked together to form "web rings," collections of web pages where one can travel from one web memorial to another. Memorial web rings are most often created for deceased children. In our survey study of one such web ring (Roberts et al., 2000), participants and those memorialized were young to middle-aged (the oldest author of a memorial tribute was 58, and the oldest child memorialized by parents was an adult of 37). Most of the participants were computer literate; 73 percent of our survey respondents had used the web ten or more hours per week before their bereavement. Although there are no general data on web-ring creators, it is likely that older adults are underrepresented in this group. From the years 2000 to 2004, there was a 47 percent increase in the number of people age 65 and older using the Internet, but even with that increase, only 22 percent of older adults now go online (Fox, 2004). Of those, approximately 55 percent visit websites to gather information, but presumably far fewer feel comfortable creating their own web page. …

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