by JL Wall

I suppose it was only a matter of time that, as our lives became more and more unified in the world of electrons at the expense of the world of matter, our deaths would, too. (And yes, I realize that I’m writing this for and posting this on a blog.) Not that online funeral and burial companies (“services” I fear would give the wrong impression) are a trend – but I don’t find this to be a reassuring start:

“On Eternal Space, loved ones can choose from different headstones and bucolic landscape backgrounds — the mountain lake is a popular option — to create a customized online grave site. Loved ones can add “tribute gifts” such as roses, candles, stuffed animals and other items, while mourners can access photos and videos in a “Memory Book” and leave remembrances of their own.”

(The text alone doesn’t quite capture the cluttered tackiness of the screenshots – doesn’t fully demonstrate why I find this development quite so irksome.)

It’s not a cause, but symptomatic of the virtual divorce from the physical world: we can choose a virtual paradise for our virtual gravesites, which hold not even virtual bones. The memory is divorced from the real as we continue to allow the spirit to be divorced from the body. Death is, and likely will be, the last vestige of the fact of our physical existence – that if we are born to die we are born to exist in the physical world. Yet we have arrived already at a point where the “funeral experience” can be captured by computer-generated graphics.

Cemeteries and graves are places, and must be places, in the real world. And while I suppose I can’t complain quite so harshly about online memorial/condolence books (though a virtual note will never be a replacement for one that you can hold in your hand, just as the typed will never be a replacement for the barely-legible handwritten), it is, as I said earlier, the image that I find most bothersome: that these online memorials are not memorials but online graveyards, where the weather is always idyllic and no family member need ever worry about driving over to keep the weeds from overgrowing. A cemetery is a physical place; graves are physical things.

But I suppose that I’m going to complain that it helps to blow down the ritual surrounding not only burial but the cemetery itself. The placing of a rock – the physical symbol of one’s physical presence; the washing of hands upon exit: that the essence of the visit contained something unavoidably physical. And that the cemetery is a place not of our everyday lives, though death and grief are natural. A cemetery and a grave are not places I should be able to visit without leaving my desk. Visits can be essential to one’s mourning process, but to allow them to seep into the home puts us at risk not only of devaluing the funeral ritual, but of allowing the cemetery to seep into the home, of transforming the home into the graveside. There are reasons Judaism tries to encourage not visiting a grave too frequently.

So I can’t help but wonder whether, if “virtual memorial sites are gaining popularity with the public as a very practical alternative to being present at the grave site,” we’ve already lost what I was worrying about. But that’s a question for another day. (And, I should admit, the practices I used as examples are those which have never been dominant in a society, except perhaps the last 60 years in a certain oil-barren sliver of Mideast desert.)

But in the end, these things will always be true: Virtual flowers are not actual flowers, and never can be. Clicking and dragging a shovelful of dirt onto the grave of a loved one will never be the equivalent of shoveling dirt onto a grave. The day when pretending – no matter how sincerely – to bury someone is accepted as equal to actually burying them will be a day worth mourning.

Looking back on what I’ve written above, I’m worried it may come across as more whining and grumbling than a substantive complaint. My concerns, to restate (just so I feel better about their clarity) are from two different directions: first, the movement towards removing the ritual and non-ritual practices surrounding death, burial, and mourning from the physical world – or at least movement towards saying that they need not necessarily be housed in the physical world. The problem with this, of course, is that life is physical, and takes place in the physical world, and death is a final reminder of this. Second, that the introduction of the gravesite into the home of the mourners is dangerous and potentially unhealthy. Take your pick as to which we should be more concerned about.