The ways of memorializing our loved ones after they die are changing, and that should come as no surprise to anyone. The introduction of the Internet, and the resulting reduction in print media, has caused in a shift from traditional print obituaries to online versions.
And, it’s made it possible for people to do so much more in honor of the person they lost.
A recent survey by Legacy.com, one of the major Internet obituary/tribute sites, discovered that more than 50% of Americans have posted online condolences through a message board, online memorial site, or a social networking site like MySpace.
Historically, there were only a few things one could do to honor the passing of a friend or family member. There was the eulogy, for those present at the funeral or memorial service. This allowed people to speak of the fine achievements or outstanding characteristics of the deceased.
Secondly, the rise of print obituaries at the turn of the 20th century, which came as part of the growth of newspapers, allowed a wider circle of people to learn of the death of a person – as well as providing families with a way to highlight the life their loved one had lived. (To learn more about print obituaries, and how best to write them, click here. Should you be faced with writing an obituary for someone, you can find an easy-to-use obituary template here.)
What’s the Purpose of an Obituary?
I don’t know about you; but for me, one of the first pages I turn to in our local paper is the “Obit page.” I’ll be honest with you – it hasn’t always been that way. I probably started reading obituaries more as I got older – over forty, let’s say. Certainly, after my first friends and acquaintances began dying.
Patrick Moore, the British amateur astronomer wrote, “At my age I do what Mark Twain did. I get my daily paper, look at the obituaries page and if I’m not there I carry on as usual.”[i] Even the comedian Bill Cosby finds obituaries to be good reading. “Like everyone else who makes the mistake of getting older, I begin each day with coffee and obituaries.”
Obituaries have the express purpose of notifying a community about the death of one of its members. It can be short, or very long – which is often the case for notable people: actors, authors, and leaders of one sort or another: political, social, or business.
An obituary for an average person notes their name, age, familial relationships, where they worked, and how they enjoyed their free time. Not much more than that; after all, those who most often write the obits on behalf of the family – the funeral directors – haven’t the personal knowledge of the deceased, and can only write what the grieving family tells them.
An Obituary is Usually Positive
Rarely I’ve I seen a death notice or obituary that casts the deceased in a negative light. The Major League right fielder, Roger Maris… “It’s like obituaries, when you die they finally give you good reviews.”[ii]
Just for fun, I went online recently, to find an obituary for a man who, for most of us, was a 20th century icon of evil: Adolph Hitler. What I found was an excerpt of the London Times obituary, published in May of 1945, and even he was portrayed as a many of ‘the most remarkable talents,’ who exhibited an ‘uncannily subtle and acute understanding of the mind of his own people.’ [iii]
So even Hitler got rather good press after his death! On another note, the New York Times ran a five part obituary of the late President, John F. Kennedy, back in November of 1963.[iv] Most of us, however, simply get one part, one notice of our death for others to read.
Taking the Obituary to the “Next Level”
Online memorial Web sites are fast becoming de rigueur for families or friends of those who have passed away. While the online memorial site doesn’t yet take the legal place of a printed death notice, it does allow more flexibility in expression.
Early on, people were using MySpace.com sites to honor their loved ones. Families could create a myspace account, and upload content to the page: photos of course, and videos; invitations to other family members or friends, who can add their stories. Take a moment to see such a site: http://www.myspace.com/inmemoryofsophie. You’ll see that there’s a story to be told here, and it’s done most effectively through video clips. And, this has gone beyond a simple memorial site: it is now the contact/information page for the organization created in Sophie’s name: S.O.P.H.I.E. Here people can find the latest news about this heartfelt reaction to her untimely, violent death.
While MySpace is a great social media networking tool, it may not be entirely suitable to simply honor your loved one. After all, it’s free, and as such, revenues come from advertising on the member pages. This adds a ‘tone’ to the pages which is, in my opinion, opposite to the intention of a memorial page creator.
The underlying value of MySpace memorial pages is this: they triggered the rise of dedicated obituary/memorial websites, which provide greater opportunities and have a more traditional feel to them. I’ve decided to review each of the major obit sites, and offer a chart of their various features.
Remembering, of course, that MySpace is free, other sites have followed suite and offer free services; or have graduated fee structures – ranging from free to $50.00 per month in hosting fees. Some sites have ‘everlasting fees’ (a 21st century ‘spin’ on in perpetuity fees charged by cemeteries) of $94.95 to $200.00. Many donate a portion of these fees to a charitable organization of their choosing; or they allow you to pick from a list of charities. Most online memorial sites provide the following services and features:
- Provide a unique address for the memorial, allowing simple and direct access to the site.
- Tell your loved one’s life story, express your thoughts on their passing, announce the time and place of a memorial service or other event.
- Light a candle on the anniversary of your loved one’s passing, on their birthday, or anytime you are thinking about them.
- Place hundreds of captioned pictures in the photo album.
- Create a slideshow with special selected photos.
- Pay a musical tribute to your loved one, share their favorite songs and music.
- Publish audio and video clips featuring your loved one. Preserve filmed and recorded memories for future generations.
- Share poems, stories or articles they wrote, speeches they gave, moving letters they wrote.
- Create a timeline highlighting important events in the departed’s life, such as graduation, marriage, children, career milestones, achievements and honors.
- Build a simple family tree, creating a multimedia family archive that links generations together.
- Have a mailing list of friends and family who would like to be notified whenever the website content is updated.
- An easy-to-use authoring and editing system, which enables you to add content and edit visitors’ contributions.
- Customized website layout and design.
- Add background music of your choice.
Let’s Take a Look at a Few – But First, the Back Story
When I started this project, I thought I’d just use content (photos, biographical information – that sort of thing) about celebrities or well-known folks for my site trials. But, as it was in February, my thoughts turned to my mother, who would have a birthday on the 24th of the month. She’s been gone now for almost 21 years, and during those years, I didn’t think too much about her; I was busy raising my sons, or ending a marriage, and re-designing my life…and to be quite honest, she was a difficult person to deal with during her lifetime. The fact was – she was an alcoholic.
Anyone who lives around one knows what I’m talking about – they can be challenging (at best), or downright horrible (at worst). I was relieved when she died, and thought little more about her. Until now; my decision to use her as my ‘lost loved one’ has brought up many memories, and turned my thinking around – I’ve come to appreciate her good qualities, and forgive her those failings which marred my childhood. It feels good.
So, my advice to anyone who has unresolved ‘stuff’ about someone who has died – take the time to create a memorial web site for them. I can almost promise you that your feelings will change by the time you’re done.
One problem I had was a lack of material to work with. I have only one picture of her, and not many facts; I didn’t even know what year she was born! Fortunately for us there’s the Internet; if you face the same uncertainties, you can look up their obituary or death notice online at Legacy.com. I’m ‘jumping the gun’ by telling you that now – Legacy is the only online memorial site builder that requires you find your loved one’s death record before you can create a site for them. I’m surprised that other sites don’t make the same stipulation, but there it is; at this point, they are the only one requiring such verification.
Before we begin our in-depth review, let me apologize for the redundancy of the images in the screen shots. You’re seeing the only photo I have, over and over again. I hope it doesn’t detract from the images; after all, what I’m showing you is how the site ‘skins’ look: those frames for your memorial.
On We Go…
While I hate to be judgmental, quite honestly there were some sites that truly disappointed. Nine times out of ten these were sites that had a hidden agenda: wanting you to convert your online memorial to a hardbound book, or the purchase of memorial trinkets. I consider these memorial sites to be little more than e-commerce portals – and as such the memorials themselves were disappointing.
Consider this site: www.memory-of.com.
I have to say, this was the first site I visited, and as such it was useful – simply because it gave me a baseline to work with when I reviewed the other sites! Honestly, the user interface didn’t work half the time; the music is tinny and annoying. While it is free for two weeks, the site owners request a hosting fee from that point forward: $4.95 per month, $49.95 per year, or $94.95 for a lifetime hosting package. One has to wonder how long that lifetime will be! With this level of quality and ease-of-use, I’d say it’s going to be rather short.
A Fascinating Addendum
When I went back to this site recently to take a second look, I found this in place of my mother’s memorial webpage. This website was reported as an ‘attack site,’ and was blocked by my browser security preferences. According to Google, an attack site attempts to install programs that “steal private information, use your computer to attack others, or damage your computer.” Now, that can’t be good!
If you were to click through the button that says, “Why was this site blocked?” you’d find this page, where Google tells you exactly what was found to be a problem. Basically –and I know you can’t read the fine print; I just wanted you to see that it’s possible to learn the down-and-dirty details of blocked sites.
“Of the 303 pages we tested on the site over the past 90 days, 82 pages resulted in malicious software being downloaded and installed without user consent. Over the past 90 days, memory-of.com appeared to function as an intermediary for the infection of one site.”
To be fair, in some cases, third parties can add malicious codes to legitimate sites, which would cause Google to show this warning message. Nonetheless, the warning for you holds: be careful where you put your time and attention! (And let’s not forget money.)
Now, Back to Business…
Malicious activity not withstanding, if we compare this site to another site, www.last-memories.com, we’ll see just how much better the interface, and visuals can be – for about the same money. These folks charge $4.90 per month, $39.90 annually, or (and this was touted as a limited-time offer) $69.90 for a lifetime of hosting. Here the site is clean, quiet, and rather elegant; all the functions work – you can light a candle, write a condolence message – and on the edit page, add video, memories, or photos to the gallery. I especially liked the ‘add a quotation feature,’ choosing to add this to my mother’s page:
“When I pass, speak freely of my shortcomings and my flaws. Learn from them, for I’ll have no ego to injure.” ~ Aaron McGruder
Let’s consider one more site, which is blatantly self-promotional. When you create a free online memorial at www.cemeteryspot.com, you get the ‘bare bones’ (not to make an unseemly pun). The site creator is easy; after all, it’s just a set of questions (Name, date of birth, date of death) and a submit button. You get to upload a photo, select an urn or headstone, and a back ground image (completely hidden, I discovered, by the urn I selected).
Here’s a screen shot, where you’ll easily see that they are selling books on the memorial; in fact, almost a third of the page is taken up by their books (How to Choose and Purchase a Cemetery Plot, How to Plan a Funeral, and How to be an Organ Donor). Oddly enough, they couldn’t even spell ‘funeral’ correctly: it’s Funaral! This is less-than-desirable, in this case, “free” is too much to ask!
Addendum (7/28.10): This site is no longer in existence; however I chose to include it so you can see just how bad memorial website portals can be. Free is rarely a bargain.
Now for the Winners
I know this isn’t a contest, but to be honest – the next four sites were the ones that were easiest-to-use, visually ‘clean,’ and had a minimum of advertising content on the memorial page. Here’s my mother’s memorial on www.Tributes.com.
You can clearly see there’s a little advertisement in the right corner, for 1-800-flowers.com, and it’s not terribly out-of-place, or unsightly. With the free obituary, you’re limited to 300 words, 1 photo, and a memory book. For a monthly fee of $3.99, the features include unlimited text, 5 photos (which can be used in a slide show), a memory book; custom URL, no advertisements, and outbound web links (to blogs, charities, etc.).
With their deluxe package, costing $7.99 per month, you get unlimited text, 25 photos (and memory book entries can contain photos – increasing the actual number considerably). You get all the features of what they call the “memorial” tribute – at $3.99 per month – but this deluxe package, known as the ‘commemorative’ package also includes:
- Music (1 song)
- Video Feeds
- Messages from the Family
- No Tributes.com Branding
One of my personal favorites, at least visually, is the site I created for Rosemary at Valley of Life. You can see a screen shot of the site below – I just love the color schemes they offer.
I consider this site to be heart-driven, and I think you will too – after you read the message from the founder, Miri Rossitto. You’ll find it on the “About” page, and it reads:
Valley of Life was designed to be a safe place to keep and cherish the lives and memories of loved ones.
On October 20th, 2006 I lost my Mama. I have a beautiful daughter, an amazing husband and a loving father – but my grief over the loss of my mother was overwhelming.
Mama didn’t want a funeral. Without a memorial service to celebrate her life with friends and family or to help me move through my grief, I felt alone and unable to move forward. That’s when I decided to create Valley of Life.
Valley of Life is here to help families pay tribute to those that they have loved and lost. Sharing memories, pictures and stories with others is such a powerful way to heal. It was through sharing my feelings online that I was able to honor my Mama’s life.
I hope that you find joy and comfort in the life stories of others. I hope that you find peace as well. The site has a great network of readers that, through the site’s online forum and blog, can provide you with needed support and answers. I encourage you to reach out to them.
Welcome to Valley of Life.
Miri Rossitto, Founder
Her words are warm, and caring. Coupled with the fact that this is a donations-only service, you know that Miri has her heart in the right place.
The site has a comprehensive resources directory, which includes memorial parks, cemeteries and crematoriums, bereavement support, hospice, places of worship, and hospitals.
There are six lovely templates to choose from, including the one I selected:
- Ocean Beaches
- Flowers and Meadows
- Rocks and Rivers
- Clouds and Skies
Here’s another top contender.
Respectance offers a totally free online service, and incredibly easy-to-use. While the basic site (like Rosemary’s, shown below) is free, they do offer sponsorships for a nominal $30.00 per year. This ensures that no ads will be displayed on the tribute page, and provides for unlimited uploads of photos, memories, and video files.
I really liked the site headers you could select from, and the background color schemes are ‘easy-on-the-eye.’ They really make it simple for community to come together in respect for the loved one lost; it’s unfortunate that my mother’s death occurred so long ago (almost 21 years!) that her community no longer exists. But, if you’d like to see the power within the medium, check out some of the Featured Tributes listed on the Home page.
Finally, we come to Legacy –a leader in online obituaries. Most of the newspapers across the county use Legacy as their online obituary provider these days. Our local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel uses Legacy.com services to power their online obituaries and guestbooks – your news providers may do the same.
Their online tribute services can be found at http://memorialwebsites.legacy.com/Home.aspx. Here you can build – quickly and easily – an online memorial for your loved one. In fact the home page says you can create one in 5 minutes – with four simple steps. They offer a free two week trial, and yearly fees are only $49.00.
There are a couple of unique features to their sites – one I especially liked was the “Favorites” section, where you can list your loved one’s ‘favorite’ foods, sports team, restaurant; their favorite dessert, color, or vacation spot. To be honest, I can’t remember too many of those about my mother; but I can remember her favorite team was the Los Angeles Dodgers. Her favorite color? I have no idea! (I sure hope it was green!)
Because here’s the site I created for her.
Some things you want to look for:
- No unwanted advertising
- No ecommerce motivations
- No unbearable music
- No dysfunctional features
- A wide variety of skins or frames for your content
- Easy-to-use interactive features
- Free trial period
- Affordable hosting packages
Two sites in my review, www.personalizedmemorial.com, and www.christianmemorials.com required money up-front to get started. In the first case, the start-up fee is $55, while in the second, it’s $29.00 – each providing unlimited hosting. The Christian Memorials site was the only one with significantly more expensive packages available, taking you from the basic plan, to a standard plan ($90.00), a complete plan ($190.00), all the way to a Premium package for $300.00.
Looking from the outside in, so to speak, I consider www.personalizedmemorial.com to be an ecommerce portal site, as they are promoting the purchase of memorial jewelry through http://www.picturesongold.com/. Granted, they get the low cost start-up fee from you, and offer lifetime hosting – but their secondary goal is to sell you gold jewelry with a picture of your loved one. This is reminiscent of the first site we visited, www.memory-of.com, where you were being up-sold: this time, it was hardcover memory books.
Because of their motivations, I chose not to promote their memorial site services; however, should you wish to look them over for yourself, please do so – just be aware of what you’re getting into.
Two more newcomers to the memorial website genre have arrived on the scene, and I thought it important to offer you my reflections on them. The first thing you should know is that they are free.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Rudy Adler, a co-founder of 1000 Memories, perhaps the most recent entry into this field. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, having learned a great deal about their mission, and the personalities behind the company. If you’d like to learn more, check out the TechCrunch video interview.
What I liked best about this site is simple: they are focusing on the positives. With the “Projects” feature, families are compelled – if that’s not too strong a word – to create life-enriching events or programs, in honor of their loved one. I like that a lot. Let’s see; if I were to create a project in memory of my mother (gone these 22 years), I’d focus on…women who face the dilemma of fulfilling their potential. Women who turn to alcohol, to numb their disappointment. But, I digress.
What makes 1000 Memories so special is that it’s clean, crisp; easy-to-use; and elegant in its simplicity. No advertising anywhere; just a simple (free) approach to online memorials. I applaud their efforts, to make life more meaningful, through the memorialization of those we loved so deeply.
August 6, 2010 Rudy Adler, of 1000 Memories, wrote us to share that community members who wish to upload audio files, video files, and an essentially unlimited number of photos are able to do so – and nothing that is uploaded will ever be deleted or otherwise made inaccessible by the site administrators. In other words, memorial websites created through 1000 Memories can be as all inclusive as you wish them to be – without cost. How wonderful is that?! Thanks, Rudy, for the update. And, thank you for the wonderful tools 1000 Memories provides grieving families and friends.
The other newcomer is Life Memory. It too is free, but there’s more visual clutter, as well as a more complex site builder interface. They do have an FAQ section to help with any issues you face in the creation of your memorial site, and a Grief & Healing Forum to help you during the weeks after loss.
It took less than 5 minutes to create a site for my mother – but it could take hours more to refine the template. Speaking of templates – they had hundreds of available styles, in And I discovered the hard way that the load time for the site was long – in fact, I’m still waiting for it to load completely so I can take a screen shot of it for you.
The following chart details the basic features available from each site, and provides a rating for each.
|Site Name||URL||Rating||Free Trial?||Cost||Unique URL?||Connect to Charities?||# of Themes||# of Photos||# of Audio/Video files|
|Valley of Life||www.valleyoflife.com||***||No||Donation Only||Yes||No||6||unlimited||Unknown|
|Christian Memorials||www.christianmemories.com||***||Yes||$25-$300||Yes||No||7||Package specific||Package specific|
|Life Memory||www.lifememory.com||***||No||Free||Yes||No||100+||10||Video Tribute Creator|
Honoring Your Loved One – The 21st Century Way
On February 19th, 2009, Robin Heppell wrote a tongue-in-cheek obituary – for newspaper obituaries. In that blog posting, he wrote, “In the early years the Newspaper Obituary served its community well, disseminating the biographical and funeral service information about its community residents who died. Over the years, Newspaper Obituary became more profitable, sometimes 3 to 5 times more profitable than its cousins, Garage Sales and Used Cars. In the last 20 years, Newspaper Obituary became greedy, holding grieving families at ransom. This was the beginning of the end for Newspaper Obituary. It lost the respect of its customers even though they were forced to still use Newspaper Obituary’s services.”
Today, the Internet is becoming the place to post obituaries and death notices – and cyber-space will continue to grow in popularity with funeral professionals, and the families they serve. However, one commenter on the blog spoke honestly when he or she wrote, “Granted, obituaries no longer serve the public interest in the way they once did, but we poor funeral directors still need a method to disseminate information about deaths and funerals to a large number of non-computer literate people who couldn’t initiate a Google search if their life depended upon it. Without a newspaper, those people do not show up at all and funerals fail to serve the whole community. If we choose to bury the newspaper, we still need to figure out how to communicate with that crowd of people who will never once find an obit on the Internet.”[v]
A friend of mine died 18 months ago, and I was stunned to learn just how expensive a newspaper obituary was; his wife simply couldn’t afford the cost of the one-time publication. We finally found a very local paper that ran it pro bono, and she spent hours on the phone contacting folks who didn’t live locally (and therefore couldn’t see the notice of services) to ensure no one would miss the memorial gathering. That was intense for her: rehashing the story of his death over and over again.
A nice compromise could be: publication of a ‘death notice’ in the local paper, which details the memorial events for community members. These can be very short, but still cost the family – at a time when money may be tight. If the cost of that is too high, then getting friends and family to make those phone calls, informing others of the date and time of the services, and any requests from the family regarding flowers, or charitable donations.
Then, creation of a perpetual memorial web site could be the focus of the early weeks after the service; when grief is most keen.
Or, you may find yourself like me, taking 21 years to honor someone in your life. However you do it, and however long it takes, creating a memorial web site can be a healing experience.