In our virtual world, many of us spend more time emailing, chatting and communicating over social media than actually talking to people face to face. Think about it: how many people do you know who you have entirely virtual relationships with? For me, it's a decent number.
As major life events move online – weddings, graduations, births – one part of life has resisted this trend: death.
Mike Belsito was working at a tech startup in Cleveland when his cousin unexpectedly died. His father, preparing to help plan the funeral, asked Belsito if there was anything like ServiceMagic (now HomeAdvisor) for funeral homes.
HomeAdvisor helps homeowners find contractors and other service professionals who are pre-screened by the service.
"I assumed there would be something like it, a place where you could get information on pricing and reviews to help you make an informed decision, but I couldn't find anything more than directories with basic contact information," Belsito said.
Later after the funeral, Belsito and his wife went to a nearby restaurant. "We were there for one reason: Yelp. It dawned on me: you can find so much more information on restaurants than funerals, and there's really no good reason for that," he said.
Belsito's business partner, Bryan Chaikin, had gone through a similar experience when a relative died, so the two decided found a company to bring transparency to the funeral business, and they launched eFuneral in 2011.
Removing Death from Everyday Life
It wasn't that long ago that death was a normal presence in the average person's life. At the beginning of the twentieth century, forty percent of the population lived on farms, where death is accepted as part of the normal lifecycle. Before the U.S. did away with the draft, it was almost expected that young men would go to war. And just a few decades ago, it was common for funerals to be held in the home. My grandfather held the funeral for my grandmother, who died in the early 1950s, in their home. And in their rural Pennsylvania town, no one thought this was unusual.
Today, death is kept at arm's length. Less than one percent of the population claims farming as an occupation and less than two percent live on farms. Less than one percent of the population serves in the military, and funerals are baroque affairs held in mansions with the bodies made up to look like Madame Tussauds wax figures.
With death so removed from life, it might seem like making them virtual is a matter of evolution. Doesn't it make a kind of morbid sense to remove them yet further from life?
But the truth is, the best online services illuminate daily life and help us make better choices. As Belsito noted, we're no longer flying blind when choosing a restaurant in an unfamiliar neighborhood. We click on Yelp and have tons of reviews to guide us. We never get physically lost in quite the same way we did before GPS. And as a recent Atlantic article noted, dating has radically changed because the early stage of getting to know the other person is usually completed beforethe first date through Google searches and hunting through online social media profiles.
eFuneral intends to guide grieving families through arcane funeral practices in the way only an online service can. Before services like eFuneral came along, it was nearly impossible to get information about pricing or to find reviews comparing one funeral home's services to another's.
"Two-thirds of funerals today are planned right after a death," Belsito said. This may be why change is coming so slowly. People who are grieving don't want the added stress of comparison shopping. They don't have the stamina to break down barriers put in front of them by practitioners who benefit from the opacity.
"Since we launched the service, we've found that there really isn't any correlation between cost and quality. The funeral that costs $12,000 isn't necessarily any better than the one that costs $8,000 two blocks away," he added.
From eFunerals to E-Eulogies
Jan Knight and Alba Carrico had an experience that mirrored that of Belsito and Chaikin. They had the misfortune of attending several funerals of close friends and family in a short time period.
"We saw immediate family members of the deceased struggling with having to write and deliver eulogies. While some eulogies were emotionally moving, others failed miserably. Many people struggle to recount a remarkable life story during such an emotional time," Knight said.
Faced with such a struggle, many families hand the eulogy off to clergy members who never knew the deceased person well, and, as a result, deliver fairly generic eulogies.
"It's better when someone close to the deceased does the eulogy," Carrico said. "It gives the family closure, but to be effective, they really need guidance."
Knight and Carrico founded MyOwnEulogy to address this problem. Each Eulogy on MyOwnEulogy is a digital memory that contains the individual's life history, as recorded by that person, with specific anecdotes to share with family and friends. The eulogy can display pictures, text, music, voice, and video.
A QR code lets authorized executors access their loved one's memories and even share them during the service. The QR code can also be used to link to content in a funeral program, in an obituary or even on a headstone. Mourners can then see what the deceased actually wanted them to remember.
Similarly, streaming funeral services have been catching on. Most notably, the memorial services of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were streamed online to millions of viewers worldwide.
"Webcasting is a tool that is growing in popularity – and one I predict will explode over the next five years. I believe it’s an important technology that will help the funeral profession prove that we’re investing in technologies to adapt to our customer’s changing behaviors and needs," wrote Krystal Penrose, blog manager for FuneralOne, in a recent post. FuneralOne helps mortuaries stream memorial services over the web. In 2011, their clients streamed more than 17,000 services over the Internet.
We're no longer a culture that lives within a hundred miles of where we grew up. We're a mobile, migratory culture, and that means that we can only attend a small portion of the services that our parents or grandparents would have.
It's no surprise, then, that streaming memorial services is slowly moving into the mainstream, as are eulogies and even shopping for a funeral home. It may seem morbid to some, but in an age when you can buy a casket at Wal-Mart, all of these e-funeral services may actually be injecting some humanity back into a life event that has become far too sterile.