Originally created 08/31/96

Cyberfunerals allow mourners to grieve over the Internet



TRENTON, N.J. - Sometimes a death in the family brings guilt as well as grief because farflung relatives cannot travel to the funeral. The solution: services uploaded live onto the Internet.

The latest twist in bereavement got a tryout on Monday, with coverage of the off-Broadway play Grandma Sylvia's Funeral. Computer users who log on can view a succession of live pictures updated every 30 seconds and "chat" with other mourners.

Modern realities demanded a modern solution, said Jack Martin, president of Simplex Knowledge Co., the White Plains, N.Y.-based outfit behind the cyberfuneral concept.

"Everyone walks around with a tremendous amount of guilt when they can't attend funerals," Mr. Martin said. "If everyone lived in the same town the way it used to be, they would all go together and then have dinner and cry. This way, they get to be more connected with their family and friends again and still have their lives."

Michael Lathrop of Largo, Fla., who writes about the Internet for Today in Funeral Service magazine, was surprised such a site wasn't developed sooner. And with funeral attendance waning, the time seems right, he said.

In 1990, 79 percent of funeral goers responding to a survey by the Wirthlin Group, in McLean, Va., said they had attended another funeral in the previous two years. In 1995, that figure declined to 70 percent.

"It kind of depersonalizes it, but it's better than missing it," Mr. Lathrop said of the Internet funeral experience. "If it's presented properly and tastefully, I can see a decline in the number of people traveling great distances for funerals of distant relatives."

Some in the business cringed at the idea.

"It's too impersonal," said Barry Wien, of Wien & Wien Funeral Directors in Englewood. "It's just too sensitive a situation. I think people want to be there and be part of it."

Some funeral directors, however, have been receptive.

Discussions were held last week with about three dozen funeral homes across the country, said Mr. Martin. None had yet committed to the $6,500 introductory offer for the service, he said, which he expected to climb to $10,000 once the service gets established.

For the money, funeral directors get a high-end graphics computer, a modem, cameras and necessary software. Simplex Knowledge will handle technical details for a to-be-determined fee per funeral.

Families can arrange either public or private services, in which a password is needed. Either way, Mr. Martin said, there would be no way for Net surfers to just browse from funeral to funeral because each service would have its own address.

Mr. Wien, the Englewood funeral director, remained skeptical of the idea, but granted it could fit in extreme situations.

"Only in some odd circumstance when somebody cannot attend, like a soldier who's stationed on a ship and can't get off," Mr. Wien said. "I don't see someone calling up and saying `OK, lets do it at 1:30 Thursday on the Internet."'

Mr. Martin realizes he's tapping into an industry that is very traditional.

"The feedback I've gotten is that funeral directors as an industry are gun-shy. They have to be careful how they behave. They are very conservative how they move," he said. "But as I've introduced the idea to people, I've had no one tell me `What? That's insane."'