We received the sad news that a relative had passed away, recently. My thoughts went out to the deceased’s only daughter who must deal with all the practical matters resulting from her father’s untimely death, while grieving for him. Thinking through what she would have to deal with, I soon realised that death, too, is a business. Not only that, but it is a business where technology and social media play an increasingly important role, sometimes in very creative ways. Here are some examples.
This is, perhaps, the most obvious task, following someone’s death. There are practical matters to consider, such as moving the body from the place of the death to the desired location for the funeral – sometimes, even in another country.
It is a market with the reputation for predatory sales techniques, taking advantage of the relatives’ emotional distress and their lack of disposition to compare alternative offerings. Traditionally, location is a key driver of sales. These days, however, there is the internet, which enables quick access to information. There are even price comparison websites specifically focusing on funeral costs.
Some service providers try to build brand presence by promoting their services. For instance, I had a classmate in junior school, son of an undertaker, who handed out calendars and key rings to his classmates.
Other providers even try to change behaviour patterns, leading consumers to plan their own funeral. If buying your own coffin, as my friend’s mother did, is too much for you, there are numerous financial plans for funeral purposes. This is an extract from the Newcastle Building Society website:
“Planning ahead shows you care
None of us like to dwell on the inevitable. But equally, none of us would want to leave our loved ones worrying about what sort of funeral we’d have wanted – and how they were going to pay for it. Taking out a Funeral Plan together with the Newcastle is one of the best ways to go on taking care of your loved ones, even when you’re no longer there. By planning and paying towards your funeral in advance, you can rest assured that your chosen arrangements have been put in place and will be carried out just as you requested.”
Many of us will now have an online presence, in addition to the physical one. When we pass away, we leave behind personal webpages, blogs, social network accounts, photographic images and videos, e-mail accounts and so on. Because the tokens of our online presence are stored in some company’s servers, it is very difficult for family and friends to access, manage and, eventually, close them.
At times, these accounts are hacked into, with painful consequences for those that miss the person whose online identity has been taken over. It is important that service providers have policies in place to deal with the passing of the user. Read Time’s ‘What Happens to Your Facebook After You Die?’ here.
Usually, when someone dies, they leave some possessions behind. Low value, unwanted possessions were traditionally donated to charity shops or individuals in need. Nowadays, there are online auction sites like eBay, trading websites like Gumtree and even recycling websites like Freecycle.
On the other hand, dealing with the valuable assets (and liabilities) – for instance, changing property deeds or preparing a will – has traditionally been the realm of solicitors. Later, stationery stores and other commercial outlets started selling packs enabling us do prepare our wills at home. Now, of course, it is possible to do that online, too. And guess what?! That’s right, there’s an App for that:
Relatives and friends may need to express the emotions released by the death of their loved one and relive happy moments. In addition to the memorials taking place at a given location and time, the web enables us to express our feelings in many ways. There are social network updates, blog posts, YouTube videos, slide share presentations…
A brilliant use of technology is the use of QR codes in cemeteries:
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I particularly like this application of QR because it bridges the physical and the digital. It brings the past into the present and makes it available for the future. It is, truly, about augmenting the experience of visiting someone’s resting place.
Good or bad?
Is the ubiquitous use of technology in this important stage of life an intrusion or a valuable addition?
Some might say it cheapens the grieving experience – making a public spectacle of what should be (?) private feelings.
Others will point towards the benefits of customer information, price comparison services and other time-saving mechanisms.
I suppose that the role of technology in the business of death is like its role in any other business. Technology in itself is neither good nor bad. It is our use of it that produces consequences, which, in turn, are never neutral.
In the end, I believe that there is one use of technology that we should all take advantage of: Showing others how much they mean to us, while they are here.