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Bereft Thais Can Now Mourn Dear Departed in Cyberspace

November 11, 2000|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK, Thailand — When her father died here in June, Hongladda Pongsuwan had no idea how to make arrangements, what kind of coffin was appropriate or how to notify friends. So she clicked onto the Internet and searched for "Thai funerals." She found nothing.

Being an entrepreneur and a computer guru, Hongladda didn't need a genie to tell her she had hit upon something. The result was http://www.susarn.com, Southeast Asia's first cyberspace mourning site, where friends can avoid the gridlock on Bangkok's streets by sending condolences rather than driving to a funeral across town and where bereaved families can order everything from wreaths to coffins.

All this has caused a bit of a stir in this traditional country, where ancestor worship is widespread and funerals are so important that the wealthy donate coffins to Buddhist temples for use by the poor.

But Hongladda said the negative feedback occasioned by her Web site--susarn is the Thai word for cemetery--has been less than expected. Her 200-employee company, Software Park, of which she is managing director, is even developing a program for virtual funerals.

"In five years, this will be big," Hongladda said as she flashed through photos of the recently departed on her IBM ThinkPad computer. "Somehow, though, I wouldn't feel right making a profit from this, so the money we do make after expenses I'll give to charity."

If one was looking for what susarn.com symbolized, it might be not the quirky nature of the enterprise but the tremendous potential of e-commerce in Southeast Asia, a 10-country region with about 510 million people and a combined gross domestic product of $500 billion. Except for more technically advanced countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, e-commerce and the Internet itself are in their infancy in the area.

Thailand, with 62 million people, has only 1.4 million Internet users and virtually no exposure to online ordering of books or flowers, much less computers and coffins.

"Most of the Internet subscribers in Thailand are teenagers sending e-mails to friends and just doing fun stuff," Hongladda said. "But they don't have credit cards, which aren't widely used here anyway. And what happens when these teenagers grow up? They'll have credit cards and they'll be shopping on the Internet. In fact, Software Park just set up an Internet site for buying books."

On susarn.com, families can post pictures of and stories about departed relatives for free. Software Park's revenues are generated by the sale of items such as wreaths (averaging about $17 in Thailand) and coffins (which range from $8 to $5,000). Susarn.com also offers a listing of funeral services provided by various pagodas, and it monitors condolence messages to make sure none are in bad taste.

Hongladda and her staff scan obituaries and news stories in newspapers here each day to compile a list of people recently deceased. They then contact the families to ask for their participation in the cyber-mourning venture. Among the deceased recently included: former Deputy Prime Minister Montree Pongpanit, novelist Nor Noparat and top model Faroong Chateerak.

Hongladda said good taste is paramount if susarn.com is to succeed, and she has made some adjustments accordingly. She has, for instance, removed the link on the home page that enabled users to write and share ghost stories under the banner of a skull and crossbones.

"People explained that was shocking to them," she said.

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