Late one night, after perhaps a few too many drinks, I reached an agreement with one of my best friends. With a handshake, he granted me exclusive rights to his body when he dies. Although his parents are unaware of this pact, my future duties entail loading his remains into the back of a truck and leaving his thin frame in one of the many fields that make up his family’s sprawling bicentennial farm.
Granted, this is a strange request, but my friend is a peculiar fellow. Regardless, I will attempt to keep up my end of the deal because I find his cause commendable: He wants to put his body to good use by fertilizing the land and becoming one with his heritage. I appreciate the fact that he doesn’t feel the need to commemorate his passing by monopolizing some piece of land for centuries with a big stone that few will ever see.
My dad tells me I can be pragmatic at times, and cemeteries are one of those times. I have always had mixed emotions about these haunts for the bereaved. Primarily, they seem like a massive waste of space that could be natural habitat or a peaceful park shaded by memorial trees rather than a drab and depressing sea of stones. Secondly, I think it is somewhat selfish to bury your body when you could contribute to humanity by donating it to science. But I have never been able to fully get behind the idea of eradicating cemeteries because I understand that people need a place to grieve along with their historical and genealogical importance. But lately, the Internet makes me wonder. Everything is digital these days, why not death itself?
If you have yet to experience the death of a friend or acquaintance through a social networking site such as Facebook, it is a very interesting process. Profiles become digital tombstones, and people’s walls are filled with interactive epitaphs. When a friend of mine from high school died roughly a year ago, the news quickly spread, and his profile wall filled with best wishes and inside jokes. He is gone, but his memory and identity live on(line). It may sound a little morbid, but it also kind of makes sense. Aren’t tombstones really just archaic status updates? Andrew is dead. Here is something sentimental to remember him by.
Although I understand Travis Kavulla’s reservations when he wrote for National Review about his experience with a Facebook death and lamented, “One could be unclothed, or eating a bowl of cereal, or listening to Cher and still electronically mourning,” I still find the possibilities of an interactive, online graveyard with personal profiles rather than physical lots intriguing. Maybe the living and dead shouldn’t be mixing their lives on Facebook, but a separate site where people could submit pictures, write notes and be able to reminisce from anywhere on the globe seems obvious.
One site that has begun doing just this is Findagrave.com. Not only does it have an online cemetery with several interactive features, but you can also take a virtual “stroll through” the site (a slightly macabre but highly addictive option). For those who just can’t let go of graveyards, the site is still pretty drab and depressing, so you will feel right at home. The operation boasts 34 million searchable grave records assembled by contributors who travel far and wide recording the contents of entire graveyards, taking pictures of individuals tombstones and then giving each one its own entry — a very interesting solution for the historical-genealogical argument. Curious, I did a search for my last name. You can imagine my surprise when not only did I get hits for my deceased brother and sister, but pictures of their tombstones appeared on my screen.
At first, I was overwhelmed. I felt violated and vulnerable. The countless hours I have spent sitting next to those two stones while staring out over the Shenandoah River and trying to make sense of life made me think twice about the importance of these monuments. Once I regained my composure, I pondered the issue and my reaction, and that I would still need a place to go for those times that I want to privately grieve, incoherently ramble and do some serious naval staring. But I also couldn’t help but think how much more peaceful and cathartic the experience would be if I could lean against a couple of trees planted in their honor and be surrounded by life.
Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.