Virtual Memorials

Screen shot from the Second Life Virginia Tech Memorial

I came across an article (on Fark) today about funeral homes selling virtual memorials to family members of the deceased. They are intended to be spaces where friends and family can virtually remember loved ones, complete with virtual flowers, benches, and other items available for purchase. The company will even send reminder emails about birthdays of the deceased so friends can remember to call the widow etc. Apparently future plans would also allow for people to purchase their own pre-death virtual memorials/profiles. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that funeral homes have found a way to capitalize upon virtual memorials, grief, and people’s desire to preserve the memory of their loved ones. 
More organic examples of virtual memorials can be found on MySpace, Facebook, and Second Life. While I’m sure earlier examples exist, the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings resulted in a lot of these kinds of memorials. You can view a video of the Second Life Virginia Tech Memorial here:

Linden Labs, creator of Second Life, has recently launched a Memorial Park within Second Life as a virtual park dedicated to victims of Katrina, Virginia Tech, and other tragedies which affect members of the Second Life community. A  9/11 memorial was also set up in Second Life on the seventh anniversary of the tragedy. From what I have read, the event was rather sombre, quiet, and respectful. 

I remember after the Virginia Tech shooting many of the victims’ names were released via Facebook profiles prior to the mainstream media release of their names. Despite the fact that my Facebook network does not include Virginia Tech, I still came across the victim’s names on Facebook, hours before the media released them. Many of their profile pages included public messages from friends offering condolences and sharing memories about the person. The profiles functioned as makeshift memorials honoring the victims. Additionally many Facebook groups were started as a way to share information, grieve, and come together as a community in a virtual space. 

September 11 Memorial in Second Life
Since then Facebook and MySpace now have official Memorial pages set up to honor users who have died. After a user dies family members can request that the page become a memorial and they gain access to the person’s page. There are many examples of such pages, although I feel a bit exploitative posting them here since I do not personally know the people (just do a Google search for Facebook/MySpace memorials if you really want to see some examples). A site called MyDeathSpace functions as an archival space for obituaries and memorials of deceased MySpace members and also includes a discussion forum for friends and family members to pay their respects. 
In an environment in which more and more people express their identities and find communities via mediated communication, it really should come as no surprise that even in death individuals turn to digital media to express grief, condolences, and to find support. Although I do wonder about funeral homes capitalizing upon these virtual spaces. Facebook, MySpace, and Second Life are free to use and have a more organic feel to them. Paying a couple hundred dollars for a funeral home to set up a virtual memorial in honor of a loved one feels a bit too opportunistic to me. Why spend $35 on virtual flowers or a park bench?

Fox’s Memorial to Dr. Kutner of House
Last week I wrote an article for FlowTV called House MD: A Consideration of Convergence Marketing in which I analyzed the ways Fox used the death of a fictional character, Dr. Kutner of House, as a creative marketing ploy. A virtual memorial was set up in his honor which then led users to a Facebook page. While my focus within that article was to consider the ways on-air and virtual marketing are converging, I think it is also important to consider the fictional memorial in light of virtual memorials intended to honor real people. Does something such as a memorial dedicated to Dr. Kutner somehow cheapen the memorials of actual individuals whose loved ones have chosen to virtually memorialize them? 
While I think it might be easy to dismiss both kinds of virtual memorials -fictional and actual individuals – as merely virtual and therefore somehow trivial, silly, banal, or even cheesy, I think it’s important to recognize and appreciate the symbolic relationship individuals have within these spaces. Essentially all memorials are merely symbolic – a way for family members and friends to remember loved ones and honor their memory in death. Memorials also serve as spaces for individuals to gather and grieve together, to leave notes, tributes, and other symbolic items. In this way physical memorials and virtual memorials are really not so different in terms of function and symbolic meaning. Whether you are leaving a note and flower on a physical wall of a Facebook wall, the intent really isn’t so different. I think such examples are further evidence of the ways in which boundaries between virtual and offline worlds are continually being eroded. What does concern me though are the ways in which the virtual spaces are becoming increasingly commercialized and profit-driven, which can serve to undermine the intended sacred symbolism of the virtual memorials. 
Image Credits:
3. Kutner memorial – author’s screenshot

One thought on “Virtual Memorials

  1. Nice piece, Jacqueline. Having spent a fair amount of time in Second Life, I’m always impressed at the way that virtual space creates opportunities for slight modifications to the way people do things in the “real world” while still retaining their purpose and value. I really like the idea that someone can benefit from a “memorial” experience without the burden of travel, cost, or logistics. The 9/11 memorial in particular makes me think this: someone who can’t afford to go to New York to visit the World Trade Center site can still participate in their own grieving process in a place designed with respect. It’s one of the more interesting things in Second Life — I’m glad you brought it up here.


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