Online Memorialisation: A developer’s view on being remembered forever in a virtual space.

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Guest-blogger, James Duckett, explores some of the considerations in designing virtual memorial spaces from a developer’s perspective.

The Memmori website opens with six simple words:

Changing the way we remember. Forever.

Those words are the core of our ambition, to explore the use of technology to reframe how, when and where we remember our loved ones, but they are also the fundamental truth of what digital memorialisation has always been, a tool with which we as a society are actively changing how we remember our dead, and one that might well provide a truly permanent record of a life.

From the day the first online memorials began to go live in the 1990’s, technology has presented us with unique opportunities to shape and change cultural traditions around remembering our dead. Through word count alone, even the simplest of online memorial services available today allow a narrative to be constructed around a life that is much richer and deeper than almost any physical memorial could ever hope to be.

The world wide web is now awash with digital memorials, from individual, hand-coded web pages left by loved ones, to more readily accessible profiles on one of the many commercial memorial platforms that provide simple web based services.

So what value do digital memorials hold for us as users?

  • They can be accessed from almost anywhere in the world, allowing extended family and friends to share in the process of remembering.
  • Stories can be brought to life, with energy and vitality weaved into them through the inclusion of photographs and video.
  • They are predominantly democratic, in so far as many services allow multiple authors to share their own memories of the deceased, creating nuanced narratives that no stone memorial can ever hope to replicate.
  • With some platforms providing free basic pages of remembrance, they present a clear cost saving when compared to physical alternatives.

Of course they have their potential shortcomings too, first and foremost being the lack of digital literacy in older users in particular, though it’s worth saying that there is a large and growing trend for this to be changing at present. After all, what good is it creating a beautifully presented webpage for Grandad if Gran doesn’t own a computer, tablet or smartphone to access it with? Then there are legacy and data security concerns, what will happen when an online platform runs out of money or is pushed out of the marketplace by competition? And what are the risks of servers being attacked and data destroyed or ransomed? As a startup business in this field, these are considerations that we are taking very seriously, and are busily developing strategies to safeguard against.

Predominantly at present, online memorials tend to be based on simple static web pages, providing a brief overview of a life supported by images, and in some cases videos and testimonials or personal messages from friends and loved ones.

There is always of course social media, with companies such as Facebook allowing profile pages to enter a memorialised state where friends and family can continue to remember and celebrate a users life. Of course though, the very disposable nature of social media, not to mention the huge trust issues that have arisen with Facebook in particular over the past few years do pose questions over how appropriate this is as a vehicle for commemoration. Furthermore as there is no clear guidance on how long these memorialised pages will remain available, and there are limitations to the ‘audience’ that can interact with such a profile, it’s a route that requires very careful consideration.

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Photograph copyright James Duckett

The growing shift to digital memorials isn’t being driven by a simplistic desire to apply technology wherever we can for the sake of it. It’s more a pragmatic response to cultural changes in attitudes towards the technology used in funerals, and a move away from burial, or at least from burial as we have known it in church and civic sites. In part this is being driven by escalating costs in burial pushing service users to actively seek alternatives such as direct cremation, but it’s also linked to the incredible work in awareness raising around alternatives being undertaken by organisations such as Dying Matters, Death Cafe, The Natural Death Centre and the Order of the Good Death, to name but a few.

There is also now a growing desire among many to have their final resting place be in a place of natural beauty, and to have as limited an impact as possible on the environment. It’s estimated that in 2017 77% of all funerals in the UK were cremations. Of the remaining 130,000 or so funerals that took place in the UK, just over 9% were recorded as being green burials, a rise of around 1.5% per year since 2012. In both cases the nature of the majority of final resting places for these individuals mean it is impossible to leave a physical memorial of any significance, and so people are looking online for solutions.

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Green Lane Burial Field, a non-denominational green burial ground which opened in April 2004. Photograph by Penny Mayes, used under creative commons licence.

It seems clear from the changing attitudes towards funerals, that we live in a time where we are increasingly engaging more openly in conversation about death and dying, now we need to start a conversation about how we remember a life.

At Memmori we are actively exploring ways that emergent technologies, including geolocation data and augmented reality, can be used in a meaningful way to reshape what a memorial can be, and hugely increase the value it has to friends, family and within the wider community. We believe the services we are developing have the potential to revolutionise the digital memorial sector, and allow users to build a legacy that future generations will value greatly.

What’s driving our ambition is a genuine desire to help provide solutions to some of the greatest issues facing funerals today – shrinking availability of space for burial, environmental impact of funeral technologies, and in particular cost and the growth of funeral poverty. Articles seem to be appearing with alarming regularity in the press recently about this last issue in particular, from crowdfunding for funerals having risen by a third within the last year, to the more recent revelation that some councils are refusing to allow relatives to attend the funerals of family members if they cannot afford to pay for it themselves. It’s a serious issue, and one which shows no sign of slowing in it’s growth. Then of course there’s the maintenance costs of physical memorials, as a walk around my local cemetery last week reminded me all too plainly, even the sturdiest stone can break or wear down to be unrecognisable and unreadable.

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Memorial maintenance can be an ongoing issue. Photograph copyright James Duckett

By providing an alternative to physical memorials, and reducing costs when compared against the average headstone by around 75%, we believe we can make a significant impact on costs to users. We aim to further this impact by signposting alternative funeral service providers, from direct cremation to green burial, from resomation to cardboard coffins. By raising awareness and educating our users we will provide them with the opportunity to take more control over funerals, personalise their experience and bring costs down yet further.

We are committed to ensuring that all the services and tools we develop are tailored to real needs, and the more input we can gather at this point from potential users, the better we will be able to align these.

Right now you have the opportunity to help us shape the evolution of our digital services, and create a more engaging and meaningful future for memorials. We are currently undertaking a short survey, and by giving 3 – 4 minutes of your time to add your voice, you can help us to ensure we are building purpose into everything we do. All data gathered in this survey will be used to shape our services at launch, and will allow us to develop and strengthen our case for funding to ensure that we are able to get to this point as soon as possible. We also hope to be able to share this data with academics and organisations working in this field (such as those mentioned earlier), and to use this as a basis for much more wide ranging joint studies in the future.

To learn more please visit our website at www.memmori.net, follow us on Twitter (https://twitter.com/mymemmori) or go directly to our survey (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/939FMGC).

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James Duckett is the founder of Memmori. With a background in the arts, education and technology, and a lifelong fascination in the practices we employ to remember our dead, he is now channeling his energies into developing new digital memorial services we can all one day choose to use and engage with.

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