Facebook for the Dead?

Two cemeteries in Suffolk, Virginia, have launched an app that helps the public locate specific graves. Profiles can be created for the deceased, obituaries uploaded and memories shared.

Img source: jamesludwig.org
The app is called ‘City of Suffolk Cemeteries’ and is available for download on iPhone and Android. It uses GPS and satellite mapping to pinpoint individual graves in Holly Lawn and Cedar Hill cemeteries, and was developed by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The project took around a year and cost $20,000.

Families are using the app to build online profiles for their departed, and it is proving especially useful for those interested in investigating their ancestry. Genealogy is experiencing a surge of popularity, and the tech-minded generations are making use of sites like ancestry.com, Find a Grave, and webcemetries.com to track down their kin.

WebCemetries.com powers both the app and website of the Suffolk cemeteries. The company was founded in 2005, has customers in over 20 states, and is based in Virginville, Pennsylvania.
Shaina Mack, project manager of webCemeteries.com, thinks technology does have a role to play in this situation:

‘It’s the perfect time for tools like this […] It’s neat to see an old industry and watching it come to life with technology.’

Tim Bonney is a keen researcher of his ancestry, and is all for using apps to pursue his hobby.

‘It’s not bad. And it’s a leap forward from having to search through a 3-by-5 card catalog in a cemetery office. […] It’s hopefully a way to preserve the information forever.’

While many seem to be reporting its usefulness for finding the site they are looking for, others are not so enchanted by the idea.

One user commented:

‘I don't like my grandparents, great-grand parents etc., being on display on the Internet.’

It is easy to see how some might find it a bit odd for the deceased to be given an online presence. Indeed, being able to look through the profiles of the dead, complete with profile pictures, cover photos, lists of hobbies, relationships, family and memories, is somewhat unsettling.

Perhaps this is because curating our own online lives is such an important part of our self-expression and how we shape our identity in the modern age of technology. Is it a little unnerving to realise that a similar presence can be created for someone who has passed away, without their approval or agency? Or is it uncomfortable because it brings the fast-paced world of tech into the intimate, slow process of grief and carving memories of loved ones into our lives?

I appreciate that there is a practical motivation for this app, and it may well be useful to someone who doesn’t have the time to wander through thousands of graves. The cemeteries deal with calls all day from people who need help locating a particular site. It would certainly enable a more efficient navigation of the graveyard, and cut down on the work of staff members.

But this is a delicate situation. There’s something in me that craves the personal, human interaction in this sensitive area. It also feels somewhat disrespectful to charge around cemeteries glued to your phone, hunting down the grave, as if as part of a game. Am I being sentimental, or are there some places where the efficiency of technology does not seem entirely appropriate?

If there are, it feels right that the peaceful sleep of the dead should be left undisturbed by the drive of app development.

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