High-tech graves give the dead a new voice // TRENDS: Vendors are offering
small, battery-operated computers embedded in tombstones that display digital
(Orange County Register; 03/29/98)
Some people want to go quietly. Dorothy Schaffer wants to go digital.
"I didn't want my kids to remember us as old tired mom and pop," she says.
It's a good bet they won't. She and her husband, Lester, have enshrined
their final message on the closest thing yet to a talking tombstone, a computer
at Belle Rive cemetery here that functions as a kind of ATM of the dead.
It's a stainless-steel obelisk, in a public room off the cemetery's central
office, with a computer screen bearing the mathematical sign of infinity.
Dorothy Schaffer, 84, has no plans to die soon, but is dying to show off her
digital memorial. She taps out S-C-H-A-F on a touch-screen pad, as visitors
will do one day, and an image of the couple appears on the screen. Her voice,
in stereo, emerges from the machine: "Whenever you listen, you'll hear the
voices of your ever-loving mother and dear dad ..."
She contemplates the effect on her family as they punch her up when she is
no longer around: "I can hear them say, `Oh, Mom!' "
The memorial kiosk is only the newest, most futuristic example of tombstone
technology that promises to transform cemeteries from places bound by granite
into playgrounds for the imagination. Beyond computerized databases of the
departed, vendors are offering small, battery-operated computers embedded in
tombstones themselves. One of them, known as Viewlogy, is capable of displaying
a digital scrapbook of photos and text. On top of that, computer-aided design
and laser carving tools are making stonecutting and tombstone design cheaper,
easier and more creative than ever before.
A decade ago, only the rich could afford chiseled busts of themselves or
ornately carved epitaphs on headstones. Now, diamond wire saws hooked up to
computers enable stonecutters to design complex shapes and cut them swiftly and
precisely. As a result, some cemeteries, once quiet gardens of stone, are
becoming libraries of quirky letters to the world. Columns and urns are giving
way to mouse ears and motorcycles and other crypt kitsch.
Jeff Martell, president of Granite Industries of Vermont Inc., estimates
that a 3-foot-high shamrock he sells for $2,000 wholesale would have cost as
much as $3,500 before the new technology. His Barre, Vt., company has sculpted
Harley-Davidsons detailed down to the model year for several people killed in
motorcycle accidents, a statue resembling Mickey Mouse for a child, a sea
turtle, cars, pianos, airplanes and "all the toys we have in our society
today," he says.
Irene Kirchner, 67, has had portraits of her five Pekingese dogs copied from
photos onto her tombstone,leaving room for future dogs. Across the front, she
asked Trademark Etching of Carthage, Ill., to draw a train, representing the 30
years she spent working for a railroad company. "I'd thought about it for a
long time," she says. "I just thought it would be best if I did it myself,
because when I'm gone they wouldn't know how I wanted it."
Kirchner isn't alone. "People think, `What I do is important.' They refuse
to be buried where they can't express themselves," says Helen Sclair, a Chicago
cemetery historian. She has noticed more tombstones popping up with
recreational themes _ knitting needles, bingo cards and Scrabble boards. Others
point to the popularity of the Peace Light, a solar-powered light that adds an
ethereal atmosphere to tombs.
That doesn't mean everyone is ready for cutting-edge memorials. Many
cemeteries still impose size and style limitations on tombstones. Still others
are slow to embrace the new computer technology, worrying that futuristic
kiosks will jar with the lugubrious dignity of cemeteries and funeral homes.
Tom Daly of Boston's St. Michael's cemetery notes that when he contracted with
Intera Multimedia, a Montreal maker of memorial kiosks, he insisted on encasing
the unit in mahogany.
And some people fear that computerized memorials won't withstand centuries
of bad weather and vandalism, leaving future cemetery visitors to puzzle over a
"2001" landscape of silent monoliths. But Forever Enterprises, the Belle Rive
cemetery owner and a computer memorial provider, points out that it backs up
its information in archives and gives extra videotape or CD-ROM copies to the
families. Leif Technologies, Lebanon, Ohio, encases its Viewlogy tombstone
units, costing about $4,000, in a stainless-steel box with a hinged cover; it
ships them with a battery that doesn't need changing for about 10 years. Still,
Deac Manross, Leif's founder, sees the point. "I'm nervous about an eternal
guarantee," he says.
What's next? Holograms. At the moment, the technology is "prohibitively
expensive" but "it's within the five-year picture," says Bill Obrock, a
salesman at Forever Enterprises. More futuristically, Obrock envisions
tombstone computers, operating on "fuzzy logic" technology that would "emulate"
a deceased person's personality, allowing visitors to have a virtual dialogue
with the dead.
Now that all data can be converted into digital format, "you could certainly
find immortality as a bit stream passing through space," says Paul Saffo, a
technology forecaster at the Institute for the Future. He conjures up an
orbiting crematorium. "Have it beam out a digital signal so we can listen to
Uncle Ernie as he passes over every night."
But most customers have an audience in mind.
The Schaffers paid $700 for a funeral-home package that included the video
memorial and the cost of donating their bodies to a nearby research center;
their only grave will be on the computer.
The Schaffers' computer file allows viewers to choose among options such
as"Scrapbook," which calls up an array of family photos, and "Tribute," which
shows clips from an interview. They tell stories about their courtship, which
included a ride on an elephant in a St. Louis park, and show mementos of their
New York honeymoon. Dorothy Schaffer says she wanted to soften her children's
grief. "I don't mind dying so much when you can laugh about it," she says.
At the end of the video, the couple kisses _ a long kiss. "So, kids, have
fun with what your mom and dad said. Consider it an adventure and we in heaven
will be much pleased, and we'll be waiting for you," Dorothy Schaffer says as
the image fades out.