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Mourners find sanctuary in cyberspace

Creating websites for the dead helps loved ones unite and preserves life stories in poignant detail.

March 18, 2007|Melissa Harris | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — During Jay Koontz's final days, as his brain tumor slowed his breathing, his wife sat at his bedside and read him notes that had been posted on his website.

She had established the site to provide updates on Jay's condition -- having found the grind of e-mailing news to family and friends overwhelming. She also provided a spot for people to leave words of encouragement.

"I tell him your messages, and he squeezes my hand to let me know that he has heard," his wife, Mary Catherine Cochran, wrote on the site the day before he died.

The Internet has revolutionized the way we work, shop and fall in love. Now it is changing the way people prepare for and mourn death.

Websites that provide real-time health updates, like Koontz's, have grown more common since a pioneering blog documented the final days of counterculture guru Timothy Leary in 1996.

Sophisticated memorials, too, have popped up on the Web featuring video montages, Web casts of funerals, even automated e-mail and audio messages prepared by the terminally ill for distribution after death.

Cyberspace is filled with so many deceased teenagers' MySpace.com pages that a young San Francisco entrepreneur catalogs them on www.mydeathspace.com. And the New York Times recently began posting video obituaries of luminaries online.

For some, memorial sites are a way to preserve a loved one's life story and social network in perpetuity. Others use them to address messages directly to the deceased.

"None of us want our kids to be forgotten, and that's the biggest thing," said Rose Palmer, 50, whose son Bryan died in 2004 at age 12. Doctors suspect it was a heart arrhythmia.

She regularly writes to him on his memorial page on Legacy.com.

"It has been a blessing to write and read, to be reminded that he did exist, that he was here," she said.

After Tara Howard died in a Maryland car accident in January 2006, a classmate at Marymount University built a memorial for her on MySpace.com.

Friends submitted dozens of pictures, which scroll across the page.

A friend of Tara's from high school, Laura Neugebauer, used the memorial and another one on Facebook.com to recruit Tara's friends to serve a meal to homeless people at Baltimore's St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church and mark the one-year anniversary of her death.

Tara had volunteered to serve meals to the homeless every third Sunday. More than 60 friends and relatives responded to the online request for volunteers.

"I use those sites to keep in touch with her friends," said Neugebauer, 19, a student at St. Francis University who attended high school with Tara at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville, Md.

Memorial websites, either created by individuals or hosted by companies and funeral homes, are extensions of roadside crosses and cemetery headstones. But mourning on the Internet can occur anywhere at any time and captures more than a person's name and dates of birth and death. The sites reveal what happened in between, in poignant detail.

"When there is a loss in their life, young people in particular almost instinctively go online and either look for memorial sites that already exist or create ones," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Center Internet & American Life Project. "We're living in a world where it is effortless to create massive digital libraries of ourselves and the people we care about."

After Cochran's online announcement of her husband's death in January 2003 at age 45, 10 or more condolences a day arrived on the site's guestbook, including one from Vonda Evans of Springfield, Ore., whose 24-year-old daughter was also fighting a brain tumor.

"Although I do not know any of you personally, I feel I do," Evans wrote. "I have been watching Jay's progress all along and wish to express my condolences."

The site "made our journey with Kyla a little less frightening," said Evans, who established a website, kylanagel.com, for her daughter, who died in August. "The unknown is the biggest fear we had. It helped to be able to log in and see that other people were going through what we were."

Cochran, who directs the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource and Image Center at Howard County General Hospital, recommends the company that hosted the "Team Jay" website, caringbridge.org, to other people fighting cancer.

Although the Internet is a public forum, Cochran said that the site offered her family privacy.

At first, she tried to keep everyone updated on Jay's health by sending e-mails to friends and relatives several times a week. But that became too cumbersome and, she worried, too intrusive. No one wanted to receive such emotional news on a computer while at work, she said.

By posting the information on the Web, she allowed people to visit and write at their leisure. Most important, it reduced the number of phone calls the family received as their children, then ages 17, 14 and 9, tried to spend as much time as possible with their father, who was a district sales manager for Sun Microsystems.

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