Centre for Internet & Society

A look at the phenomenon of digital memorials; repositories and time capsules of a life even after it's ended in the real world.

The article by Jayanthi Madhukar and Sowmya Rajaram was published by Bangalore Mirror on March 20, 2016. Rohini Lakshane was quoted.

On the first death anniversary of his father-in-law last week, Pradip Mehta (36) decided to show the 120 relatives gathered at his home in Rajkot the digital memoriam he had created through Shradhanjali.com, India's first and only memory portal. As he clicked on the page, the photograph of his father-in-law popped out to the accompaniment of the Mrityunjaya mantra. Curious relatives looked on as he showed them the photo album on the portal where all good moments with the deceased we're captured for eternity. "There were two reasons why I chose this kind of memoriam," he explains. "Instead of paying a fortune on print media for the announcement, this online profile will be up for 30-odd years. And by uploading all the pictures and videos, my wife and I are making sure that he will be 'alive' for our 12-year-old son in the future." Mehta regrets that he grew up with practically no idea of his ancestors. "We don't take efforts to know our lineage at all."

That may not be the case with the millennial generation and the people who follow them. With an entire life online — selfies uploaded to Facebook, tweets, posts, Instagrams of their meals and dubsmashes — leaving behind a legacy is less a matter of choice and more a matter of inevitability. Everybody leaves behind a footprint on the Internet, but some of it can be controlled even after their death. Today, your loved ones have a 'life' beyond their death — on memorialised pages on Facebook, on webpages dedicated to their memory, and even on QR codes on their gravestones that will link to information about them online.

Indeed, the dead may soon outnumber the living, at least in the virtual space. A US statistician has calculated that Facebook's dead will outnumber the living by 2098. And when that is the case, the rules must evolve.

In memoriam

Take the way social norms have evolved in the virtual space. When a death is announced on social media, online friends begin sharing thoughts and comments. Some may not have even met the deceased in the real world but their digital interactions had been extensive enough for them to suffer a sense of grief.

So, how does one mourn a loved one who has piled up an extensive amount of digital possessions? Do they deserve an online memorial? Facebook certainly thinks so. On the social networking website, families can get full access to profiles only if there's documented instruction from the deceased. You can let the site know if a person has passed away, and Facebook will memorialise the account, which means that person's Facebook account now appears with a 'Remembering' above their name. A legacy contact (someone you choose to look after your account if it's memorialised) can then write posts, respond to new friend requests and such. There are many such accounts on the site — take the accounts (now memorialised pages) of actor Sanjit Bedi (of TV show Sanjeevani fame), Sheryl Sandberg's late husband Dave Goldberg and late F1 driver Jules Bianchi. All this, if you don't explicitly ask for your account to be deleted after your death.

In an earlier interview to The Huffington Post, Facebook spokesperson Fred Wolens had said: "When we receive a report that a person on Facebook is deceased, we put the account in a special memorialised state. Certain more sensitive information is removed, and privacy is restricted to friends only. The profile and wall are left up so that friends and loved ones can make posts in remembrance. If we're contacted by a close family member with a request to remove the profile entirely, we will honor that request."

Time capsule

Shradhanjali.com works a little differently. For Vivek Vyas, co-founder of Shradhanjali.com, the idea was born out of empathy rather than business opportunity. He says one particular incident prompted him to offer the memorial service online. He and his friend (now partner) Vimal Popat were eating samosas at a roadside restaurant off Rajkot in 2011. The paper in which the savouries were packed was the obituary page. "It was disturbing to see the photographs of the deceased wrapped around the samosas, oil-stained and later, discarded as rubbish." The friends spoke of having an online memoriam which would be decorous to the memory of the departed.

Back home, the two researched similar sites and to their surprise, found no other site offering such a service in India. "Let's do this," Popat urged Vyas, and the two quit their jobs in an insurance company to start the memorial portal. The site went live in 2011, allowing you to relive memories of your loved ones.

First, one has to register by going online to this B2C website with a simple user interface. Once a payment of Rs 2,700 is made for a 30-year subscription, the subscriber can upload information, photographs and videos about their loved one. They are offered a choice of 10 languages (for friends and relatives to write their condolences) and a selection of music that they wish to be played whenever someone visits the profile page. The content is completely user-driven and once the page goes 'live' the link is sent to all the emails that have been uploaded.

Vyas maintains that their website is gaining traction — there are about 400 paid subscribers, many of them are agencies which partner with print media giving 'packages' to the client — and in spite of not marketing aggressively, the number is growing. "The concept connects with people in a rather intimate manner," he says, "and some of the people to whom I have explained the site have shed copious tears, they are so moved by the concept of memoralising the departed."

In fact, one of the subscribers initially wrote a cheque of Rs 27,000 insisting that the yeoman service needs better cash appreciation.

The founders maintain that their venture is not comparable with Facebook or a blog as Shradhanjali is free of any advertisements and even sends out reminders of birth and death anniversaries. "Besides, the others are not exclusive platforms for memorials," Vyas stresses.

Life, beyond

Clearly, the meaning of the memory of a loved one is different today. It exists beyond photo albums and physical memories of that person's friends and family. Madhu Nataraj, choreographer and dancer, Natya Stem Dance Kampini, discusses what the community page dedicated to her late mother Maya Rao on Facebook means to her. Although the page was made when she was alive, as a way for her students to address her and to talk about her book, after her death in 2014, Nataraj says today it has become a sort of memorial page, where people post their remembrances of her mother.

"She lives on through her art. Every time I dance or step on stage — and I'm sure this is true even of her students — I remember her. This is just another dimension of that remembering," Nataraj says. In another case, the FB page of Dean D'Souza (a close friend of a writer who did not wish to be named), who died in a helicopter crash in 2013, "brings comfort and a smile". He adds, "Friends are constantly posting on it, and his profile picture is changed regularly, reminding us of a happier time. I found it unnerving at first have FB remind me that "It's Dean's birthday", but not anymore over the years."

Nataraj however emphasises that for an artist of her mother's stature, the legacy is through the memory of her art. Of course it feels good when people pay tribute to her online. But a virtual 'memorial' of her mother's life isn't the only legacy she has.

Digital remembering

But the burgeoning number of such services makes it clear that for many others, a virtual repository of their loved one's life is important. Take The Digital Beyond, a site that discusses how to plan digital legacy management — Facebook accounts, email, bank accounts etc — after death.

There are others. In a page straight out of the movie PS I Love You, a service called My Wonderful Life sends posthumous emails to loved ones. Then there's MyDeathSpace.com, which tracks social media profiles of the dead and maintains an extensive message board and Facebook page.

Services such as Living Headstones allow you to emboss a QR code upon a loved one's headstone. Scanning it connects to a website containing information you and friends add about your loved one, such as: an obituary, family heritage and history, photos, comments by friends and relatives and even links to share content on Facebook or Twitter. Another, Quiring Monuments, adds a link to the granite memorial through which smartphones can connect to your loved one's personalised website.

There are those who might raise their eyebrows at such platforms, but Vyas will have none of it. "Just because you have a mandir (a prayer room) at home, the need for temples will not diminish, will it? There is a decorum given to the memory of the dead on our site."

Do we forget?

But there is also a flipside. In the real world there is a period of mourning, people come to offer condolences and then, it is time to move on. Cyberspace may not allow this clean transition from grief and mourning to a semblance of routine. The thing about having such a digital memoriam is that grieving does not really end. This is a setback, according to clinical psychologist Dr Anand A Rao. "Grief has to be suffered immediately otherwise it will become a reaction later which will require clinical help," he says. But reliving the memory each time someone posts a query or shares a memory does not help either. "Ultimately, grief has to stop and loved one's routines have to continue. Typically I would recommend the presence of such a page for about 15 days, no more," he says.

There is also the matter of insincere tributes. As Nataraj says, she was very hurt when people who "hardly knew" her mother had posted selfies captioned: 'Maya didi', "followed by five hearts". "I found that callous," she says. "There are so many so-called obits and condolence messages and everybody wants to claim that familiarity with her that I'm sometimes wary."

But it doesn't look like the digital memorial phenomenon is going away anytime soon. Rohini Lakshane, researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society, agrees with Dr Rao to an extent, saying that getting constant updates could thwart the process of grieving or healing. "But at the same time, I could see how reaching out to a larger community via public updates or photos could give them strength, moral support and empathy," she says. She points out that if a person feels that their online persona or presence is an extension of themselves, it's a perfectly "legitimate wish" to have. "Given the importance attached to details of events that we post online, I suppose the desire to create a time capsule of it will continue to exist.

Filed under: