Menus Subscribe Search
qr-code

(PHOTO: ELIKS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Way We Mourn Now

• October 09, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: ELIKS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Could this code be the new way to remember the dead?

The way we mourn has changed, but the purpose remains the same. In 13th-century Europe it was thought that more masses said on behalf of the deceased increased their likelihood of leaving purgatory. Up to four masses could be held, a commoner playing the role of the deceased once the actual body was buried. Staged photographs of the dead were in vogue in the Victorian era, as was keeping a lock of their hair knotted in a locket.

The methods of mourning change for a number of reasons, but it’s really a question without a specific answer—how do you adequately honor a life? And how do you do it today, when we pretend death doesn’t exist in the first place? Well, there’s always the way we cope with everything else: technology.

In the forthcoming book Digital Legacy and Interaction: Post-Mortem Issues, professor Candi Cann of Baylor University discusses “virtual” memorials and their implementation in various countries. Her particular focus is on QR codes (short for Quick Response). They  are the patterns of black pixels that you’ve probably seen on a Subway ad or cereal box. When scanned by a smartphone, QR codes lead to a site with additional information about the item you’re scanning. Now, in Japan and China, QR codes are popping up in a more somber spot: tombstones.

“People who don’t want to memorialize basically want to be able to have a conversation with the deceased—they want to keep the memory alive.”

QR codes premiered in the Japanese market in 1994 and found their way onto tombstones in 2008. The codes serve multiple purposes: when scanned, they lead to a website with photos and information about the deceased and allow for users to give virtual gifts, like food, incense, or a Buddhist funeral chant. In addition, Cann writes that the coding expands the traditional limitations of physical space, meaning if family members are unable to travel to the grave site, they can access the same virtual page through the Internet. While, traditionally, Japanese families keep a small altar honoring their dead for a year, the virtual altar shifts “the physical necessity of a household altar to the virtual realm.”

In the U.S. the funeral industry remains within the private sector, but tombstone technology in Asia is largely driven by the government. In China, where the government owns and maintains cemeteries, QR codes are seen as a creative solution to the serious dilemma of land shortage for a burgeoning population. For inland populations, the government has placed QR codes on the burial sites; the deceased remain in individual graves for seven years then move to mass graves, “with Internet memorials set up to maintain offerings, reducing foot traffic during the annual Qing Ming holiday to honor the dead.” Families who choose to bury their dead this way are offered a financial incentive, as the situation of land usage is considered a major environmental concern.

Could we experience a similar trend in the States? “I don’t see QR software taking off here like in Asia,” Cann told me from her office in Texas, “I think within 15 years everyone will have a virtual memorials. For the actual method, I’m not sure what will take off.”

For now the most popular choice for Americans, according to Cann, is a profile already filled with photographs and memories: Facebook. Funeral parlors, noticing the trend, have tried to stay competitive by offering personalized websites and elegant QR codes carved into granite or wood as part of an overall funeral package, but they have had little success. Why pay for anything new when it’s all already online? Facebook has certain policies for these profiles—an active site means you can still get Farmville requests from a dead grandmother—so you now can choose to “memorialize” a page. That locks the site, so users can see it, but nothing can be changed or posted. Still, some refuse, because, as Cann said, “People who don’t want to memorialize basically want to be able to have a conversation with the deceased—they want to keep the memory alive.”

These Facebook pages also allow people to express the grief they hold back in front of others, Cann said, explaining in part their popularity. These days, the public face of mourning is minimized—months of wearing black is rare, and there is an emphasis on privacy. “We’re disappearing the dead and not allowing the conversation to occur,” Cann said. “One-hundred-fifty years ago you would wear mourning clothes; now you don’t get recognized publicly when you’re grieving. Now, society expresses itself through technology. There’s no place to mourn, so we go there, making our private conversations public to our social network.”

With the deceased becoming ever more virtualized, won’t it be that much harder to ever actually “let go?” But maybe not letting go is the point.

“I see the notion of letting go really a product of industrialization, this prioritizing of work and production,” Cann said. “I don’t know if it’s important to let go, but rather reinsert the dead into our world so we can move on with these missing pieces in our lives.”

Sarah Sloat
Sarah Sloat is an editorial fellow with Pacific Standard. She was previously selected as an intern for the Sara Miller McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program and has studied abroad in both Argentina and the U.K. Sarah has recently graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara with a degree in Global and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @sarahshmee.

More From Sarah Sloat

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.