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Cyberspace cemetery: Where the voices of the dead live on

MyDeathSpace saves profiles of deceased MySpace members.

August 12, 2007|Meghan Barr | Associated Press

Somewhere deep in cyberspace, where reality blurs into fiction and the living greet the dead, there are ghosts.

They live in a virtual graveyard without tombstones or flowers. They drift among the shadows of the people they used to be, and the pieces they left behind.

Allison Bauer, 20, left rainbows -- reds, yellows and blues -- festooned across her MySpace profile. Before her body was pulled from an Oregon gorge on May 9, where police say she leaped to her death, she unwittingly wrote her own epitaph.

"I love color, Pure Color in rainbow form, And I love My friends," she wrote in her profile. "And I love to Love, I care about everyone so much you have no idea."

Now her page fills a plot on www.MyDeathSpace.com, a website that archives the pages of deceased MySpace members.

Behold a community spawned from twin American obsessions: memorializing the dead and peering into strangers' lives. Anyone with Internet access can submit a death to the site, which currently lists almost 2,700 deaths and receives more than 100,000 hits per day.

The tales are mostly those of the young. Here, death roams cyberspace in all its spectral forms: senseless and indiscriminate, sometimes premeditated, often brutally graphic. It's also a place where the living -- those who knew the deceased and those who didn't -- discuss this world and the next.

There's a boy, 16, who passed out in the shower and drowned. There's a 20-year-old whose burned body was discovered on a hiking trail; and a woman, 21, who overdosed on drugs and was found in a portable toilet, authorities say.

Their fates have been sealed, but their spirits remain alive -- frozen in time, for all to see.

Scrolling down a dead person's MySpace profile wall is like journeying into the past. The pages were abandoned hastily, many without warning. Most telling is the date of each person's last log-in.

For Stephanie Wagner, 16, it was Sept. 29, 2006 -- a month before she was strangled and stabbed on Halloween night. Her frivolous teenage profile pales against the terrible facts of her slaying.

"This site does kind of let you look into the heart of darkness," says Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "We see those kinds of things that we try not to think about, which is how we are all dancing on the edge -- how quickly mortality can come in and claim us."

The human bits scattered across each profile form a vivid clip of life in motion. It's a final resting place for the various "selves" that people project online: the ironic self, the joyful self, the bitter self, the courageous self.

"I do not fear what the future holds for me," Navy Hospitalman Geovani Padilla Aleman, 20, of South Gate blogged months before he was killed in Iraq. "I will stand and fight. I am not afraid to die."

Weeks before she stood in the path of a commuter train, Cheryl Lynn Duca pondered mortality in a poem: "over my life i've watched people die in front of me. wondering why this happens."

Many families of the deceased leave the profiles up as memorials. Each profile "wall" -- a feature MySpace members use to post messages to each other -- becomes a conduit for one-way communications with the departed. Days are marked by post-mortem birthday wishes or life updates.

"I made that B in Statistics. and I certainly missed you sittin next to me during the final," a friend wrote to Casey Hastings, 19, a cheerleader who, police said, was killed when she drove on the wrong side of the road.

Some profiles are used to publicize a little-known atrocity. One profile is dedicated to a 3-year-old murder victim.

MyDeathSpace grew out of one person's morbid curiosity in December 2005, after two teenage daughters were slain by their father. Mike Patterson, 26, a paralegal from San Francisco, tracked down their MySpace pages one day. His curiosity grew into a journal that later became MyDeathSpace.

"I'd come across these stories where teens would be ending up dead or killing themselves, or killing others," he said. "And more often than not, when I looked them up on MySpace, they had profiles."

Permission to use the profiles is not requested from MySpace, which is not affiliated with MyDeathSpace and did not respond to requests for comment. MySpace said in a statement that it handled deceased members' pages on a case-by-case basis and does not "allow anyone to assume control of a deceased user's profile." Profiles can be deleted if requested by relatives.

MyDeathSpace matter-of-factly catalogs each death in headline format: "Belford Ramirez (19) died after being stabbed in the neck outside of a Burger King." A link leads to a detailed description of the fatal attack -- an element usually pulled from a news article or blog -- his photograph and a link to his MySpace profile.

The site even charts death geographically on a map of the continental United States, using black skulls to represent each death.

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