The Internet Bell Tolls for Thee

When I was in Paris last Christmas, I went on a brief and chilly tour of the internationally renowned Pere Lachaise cemetery. It's an immense, eerily beautiful place, awe-inspiring not only for its size (it covers roughly 45 city blocks), but also for its many elaborate monuments to the dead. In winter the cemetery is stark, icy winds sweep across the tops of the gravestones and nip at your heels as you wander through long cobbled avenues lined with leafless trees. As you walk, you can hear your shoes clicking on the brittle stones, so sharply you think they might throw sparks. Flowers are strewn all about the grave sites, most of the blooms freezing before they have time to wilt.To my mind, nothing virtual can ever match the physical feeling of walking through a cemetery, pausing at this or that unknown grave to contemplate the passing of a stranger's life. So when I heard about virtual cemeteries cropping up on the Internet, my first impulse was to laugh. Dead people being buried in cyberspace? I mean, there is something oddly appropriate about memorializing the dead in a disembodied forum such as the 'net. But I could hardly imagine myself -- or anyone else -- taking such a thing seriously.And yet, I found most of the cemetery sites I visited weren't ridiculous at all -- quite the contrary. The Virtual Memorial Garden, for example (the only free online cemetery I found), is a wondrous place, sensitively done and filled with epitaphs posted by people from around the world.These are not professional writers or funeral home directors, skilled in the art of the well-placed euphemism -- yet their words make the site special. In large part this is because the things they say are more emotionally complex than "may you rest in peace," more personal than "you will live on in our memory." Reading through this sea of remembrances, you feel somehow included in the grieving process, as if you had been ceremoniously called upon to witness it. This shouldering of a portion of the burden and the joy of each other's lives, remembering those who have died, is one of the most important ways we humans support each other, and my experience at Virtual was as moving as any I've had in a real cemetery.There is another side to all this death stuff, though, that is as inescapable as the mourning and the sharing of grief. That is the laughter. People say you shouldn't mock death, but sometimes, in the face of it, there is nothing else to do. None of us really knows what's on the other side of the wall, after all. It could all be some cosmic joke. And just in case it is, there are plenty of people on the 'net who are ready to contribute material.Take those, for instance, at the Eternal Flame Commemorative Memorial site. Cemeteries have never particularly creeped me out, but funeral parlors do, and the Eternal Flame is nothing if not a funeral parlor born straight from the heart of middle America.You can almost smell the dead flowers when the site first loads on your computer screen. The setting is perfect, from the sentimental script lettering and lurid green wreath of their logo to their casket-liner background pattern and flickering-candle graphics, to the use of such cheesy phrases as "The Chapel of Light" for their online chatroom, and "The Big Backyard" for their pet cemetery section. Not to mention a complex set of payment options, designed in true funeral parlor style to confuse and overwhelm you in your time of grief. Their only real flaw is one that plagues real-world funeral parlors as well: They appear to have taken themselves seriously.Raymond Camden's Death Clock site -- where "every second counts" -- makes no pretense whatever of seriousness. He calls his irreverent clock "the net's friendly reminder that no matter where you go, someone is counting the seconds away until you die." Enter your birthdate and gender and this site will generate a little onscreen clock counting down the number of seconds you have left to live, and listing your personal Day of Death. The number of seconds will vary wildly depending on whether you choose the regular or Pessimist or Sadist setting. You can also run a Celebrity Death Clock for various people, from the Clintons to Rush Limbaugh to Bill Gates. All in all, it's an entertaining way to waste a few seconds of your life.Of course, some of the humor in death comes not from what we think of it, but from how we obsess over it. The Web contains several very informative sites about dead people, including Jim Peterson's Dead People Server, which boasts an extensive list of well-known people, plus information on whether or not they are actually dead, and if so, what they died of. It's an indispensable information source. I mean, how else would you know that Dick Clark is actually immortal, that Kurt Cobain died of angst or that L. Ron Hubbard is only "marginally more dead than Elvis Presley?"If you're interested in politicians specifically, the Political Graveyard is the place for you. From here you can check up on your favorite dead politicians, or better yet, read the stats on political deaths. This site will help you look up all the politicians that were killed in duels, versus those who simply disappeared or died mysteriously. Or you might want to compare the ones that died in theaters to those that died in train stations or worse yet, in hotels or prisons. The site even lists those whose remains have never been found.Of course, that's all well and good, but if you want to confirm whether Ronald Reagan is still alive, you'll have to go back to the Dead People Server. Last I checked, the Political Graveyard didn't track actors.SIDEBAR:The Virtual Memorial Garden http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/VMGThe Eternal Flame Commemorative Memorial Site http://www.eternalflame.com/directry.htmThe Death Clock http://www.speedoflight.com/techs/ray/death/The Dead People Server http://www.scarletfire.com/dps/The Political Graveyard http://polygon.intranet.org/tpg/Find-A-Grave http://www.orci.com/personal/jim/links.htmlTake a Tour of the World's Great Cemeteries http://www.webpointers.com/VirtualCemeteries.htmlWorld Wide Cemetery http://www.cemetery.org/

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