Susan Hunnisett took out her iPhone this Christmas and shot a quick video of her family.
The mood was festive, but a brutal realism also hung in the air: Ms. Hunnisett quickly uploaded the video to I-Postmortem, a website that lets people build their own memorials online, when they’re alive and well.
Knowing any day could be her last, the forward-thinking twenty-something is squirreling away her moments for the partners, family and friends who survive her, like virtual memento mori.
“As I’m in my twenties, it’s more of a journal, but I keep in mind the real purpose of the information,” said Ms. Hunnisett, a Torontonian who works in private banking. “As I get older I’ll use it more specifically for direct personal messages and planning.”
While virtual memorial websites have been around since the mid-1990s, traditionally they’ve helped the living venerate the dead. The latest crop, including I-Postmortem, a Silicon Valley start-up launched last fall, encourages the living to commemorate themselves, essentially writing their own obituaries.
And they offer another, somewhat unsettling feature: Users can have their notes, videos and recordings dispatched to their loved ones on a designated schedule, in some cases years after their deaths. Think sending your son advice on his 18th birthday, a posthumous man-to-man.
“When we talk about building immortality, this is what we refer to, the ability to continue to interact with living people long after you have gone,” said I-Postmortem chief executive Jacques Mechelany, who charges an annual fee of $49.99 (U.S.) for his “i-Memorials.”
“Would anyone get upset if they suddenly discovered, 10, 20 or 50 years later, a letter left for them by a deceased parent or grandparent?”
Mr. Mechelany compares it to an insurance policy: “People do not think twice about taking [those out]for their cars, homes or even their lives, hoping obviously that nothing will happen. The thinking process here is the same: It is about being prepared.”
He’s left messages for his family, friends and business partners, “telling them all the important things that you do not say every day.”
If you want, you can utter your last words directly from your Facebook wall: A new app called If I Die publishes your final missives here, right above that cat video you posted before shuffling off unexpectedly.
Users record videos and compose messages to be posted on their wall immediately after their death, or according to a schedule of their choosing. Three “trustees” from their friends list are then appointed with verifying the death so the messages can be shipped out.
“It can be a bid farewell, a favourite joke, a long-kept secret, an old score you wanted to settle, or even some valuable advice,” suggests If I Die’s cheekily morbid online ad. The ad features a hand with its middle finger extended (presumably an adios to rivals) as well as a bottle of suntan lotion, a caution to beach-bum Face-friends.
Co-founder Eran Alfonta said he got the idea after a friend and his wife narrowly avoided a serious car accident in Italy: “After they recovered, they began to think about what will their kids get from them if they died,” beyond an insurance policy.
The Israeli-based company is creeping toward 100,000 users, 7 per cent of them Canadian. The target audience is age 30 and up. So what happens if Facebook – or If I Die, for that matter – goes belly up before you do? “We will allow our users to withdraw their message and deal with it in another way,” assured Mr. Alfonta, whose service is free, with fees coming for an as-yet-undeveloped private messaging service.
Sharon Mnich, founder of VirtualMemorials.com, the first website to let people celebrate their deceased back in 1996, said the newer services can help, especially for those leaving young children behind.
“If you want to share messages that they wouldn’t be ready for, you can share stories and memories as they get more mature, so they would still have something of you to see.”
Her site is slowly seeing more people setting up their own memorials, including some who are terminally ill and “a few who are very controlling.”
“Some people want to share their side of the story so that is the only one recorded,” Ms. Mnich said. “If your life was complicated, your death will be complicated.”
Beyond divas in the family, Ms. Mnich sees privacy as a big concern: “If you’ve left something only meant for your children and it gets out to extended family or friends, there would be a whole realm of complications. Once someone’s gone, there’s no clarification.”
Experts are divided as to whether virtual memorial sites help or hinder the grieving process of survivors on the receiving end of posthumous messages.
Tim Blackmore, professor of media studies at the University of Western Ontario, noted that “people very often shoot first and think later” with social media. He sees “a particularly virulent case for that” in the new bereavement services.
“You might, in anger or in joviality, record a message which is not clear or hurtful and then set it off, leaving it as an emotional bomb that somebody will pick up, whether they like it or not, on their 21st birthday or on an anniversary.”
Prof. Blackmore also dismisses the notion that the sites offer any kind of conversation: “The come-on is that somehow, this is communication from beyond the grave. But of course it isn’t. It’s communication from before the grave; it just appears posthumously.”
Others laud the new technology as a natural extension of older mediums used after death.
“We have been able ‘hear from’ the deceased for a long time by reading a letter or watching a videotape,” said Mike Massimi, a University of Toronto PhD candidate who looks at technology and the bereaved.
“What is new about computing is that the deceased can now determine in advance ... when each message arrives, who receives it and how it should be displayed.”
Mr. Massimi pointed out that we’ve long used the Net to announce births and plan weddings, and now that is slowly turning to end-of-life issues: “We are witnessing the adoption of widely available modes of communication such as Facebook to respond to a natural part of the human lifespan.”