CYBER  MEMORIALS:  HARNESSING  THE  POWER  OF  ONLINE  RITUALS

MANILA,
November 1, 2004 (STAR) By Eden Estopace - Over a billion people all over the world were glued to their TV sets on Sept. 6, 1997 to watch the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales, at the Westminster Abbey.

Media scholars all agreed Dianaís death was the ultimate media spectacle of the 20th century. In this transnational media experience, television, according to New York TV critic Caryn James (1997), served "a communal function of uniting the country in grief and acceptance."

"Like a wake," she wrote, "watching television allows viewers to overcome their disbelief and grasp the reality of death. But this soon gave way to wall-to-wall trivia about her life in a voyeuristic overload."

Today, the legendary funeral on global television continues to live on in the online world through the memorial site of the well-loved princess in the official website of the British Monarch at http://www.royal.gov.uk. Thousands of other online memorials have sprouted on the World Wide Web to pay tribute to a well-loved princess and keep her memory alive.

Not too many people can visit the Spencer familyís memorial at Althorp where she was buried, but millions of admirers can visit these Internet sites to pay their respects, get over their sense of loss, and participate in the rituals of collective mourning.

On CNN Interactive, no less than former US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have given their tributes for all the world to read, alongside the tributes of Dianaís biographer, Lady Colin Campbell, and American Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole.

On Time Magazineís online edition, a listing of the personal memorial sites for Princess Diana is a useful guide for people, in true online fashion, to download Diana photos, video, screensavers, artworks and songs dedicated to her life. These online memorial sites also serve as forums to promote causes she espoused in her short-lived life and rally against the complex issues that led her to her premature death, including media exploitation of celebrities and drunk driving.

A few months ago, the world also mourned the passing of a former US head of state. Ronald Reagan, whose presidency defined the 1980sí America, is a celebrity in his own right, his lifeís drama a heady mixture of Hollywood and politics. But it is celebrityhood of the intellectual kind. Scholars, historians, students and academicians will always have something to look back on the Reagan years Ė the Iran-contra scandal, his controversial Cold War policies, and the famous "Reaganomics" that delivered an economic boom but also huge deficits, among others.

Online memorial sites dedicated to the "Great Communicator" will probably never inspire teary-eyed admirers into an emotional rollercoaster ride in the tradition of pop celebrities, but the Reagan presidency is deeply interesting for its many contradictions to merit a worldwide audience.

Essential to understanding the man and his two-term presidency were his youth, his radio years, his stint in Hollywood and his tenure as governor of California, which are all featured in the family memorial website Ronaldreagan.com.

Online readers can also post messages to the Reagans, browse its message board, join a discussion on its live chat and even purchase souvenir items and memorabilia through its gift shop.

In the pop culture scene, the death of music legends like John Lennon and Elvis Presley stirred the world. Fast-forward to the cyber age, expect the Web to be filled with manic outpourings of love and admiration for these global icons.

Ten years after Kurt Cobain was found dead in his upscale Seattle home, fans all over the world have created tribute sites for the legendary king of grunge. In death, as in life, diehard followers of Cobain have united to celebrate his music, his life and times. The guitarist, vocalist, songwriter of Nirvana was 27 years old when he met his tragic end, sending into a downward spiral a music sensation that defined a generation now in their 30s and 40s. But on Internet time, the legend lives on.

Now, there are at least a thousand entries on Cobain on Google, websites mostly done by amateur Web creators.

Communications guru Michael Real once wrote that funerals of celebrities are "classical mythic rituals at work." Dianaís, in particular, "celebrated unifying emotional, symbolic objectifications of collective experience," he said.

By sharing in a famous personís charmed life and tragic death, one participates in the cathartic rituals of grieving. But cyber memorials, unlike their traditional counterparts, are much more about life than death. The Cobain Memorial at cobain.com said it best when it announced, "This website is not about Kurtís tragic end, but his life."

Beyond celebrity

Tradition has always bound humanity to rituals of honoring the dead. Every culture has its way of remembering departed loved ones, ranging from offering flowers, candles, prayers and visiting graveyards at least once or twice a year, in occasions usually declared as national holidays.

But with the global diaspora, how many families or clans can now really gather in these annual rites to strengthen familial ties?

In China, where Confucian filial piety and ancestor worship are well-entrenched in the local culture, people are turning to Internet services to create cyber memorial halls to honor departed loved ones.

According to the website english.people.com.cn, Wangtong, the leading memorial website in China, "now has nearly 20,000 online memorial halls, with daily visits numbering more than 10,000 on average, according to statistics."

"The vitality of online memorial services lies in respecting and upgrading traditional customs. The services have injected the freshness of the new era into an everlasting humanitarian concern through high-tech means," the website quoted a Chinese sociologist as saying.

Inasmuch as virtual communities have created a parallel universe in cyberspace, the power of online rituals both for the dead and the living is taking on a definite shape.

New York-based e-memoriam.com hit the right business value proposition when it developed its e-services portal "so that we and our family could pay our respects and honor our loved ones without the necessity for cross-country travel and expense."

"Online memorial sites," it attested, "have brought our families closer together at those times when family was most needed, and it is our greatest hope that our sites will have the same wonderful impact on yours in your time of need."

With the slew of free Web hosting services on the Net, complete with interactive features that professional websites have, most people can actually create their own cyber memorials with minimal expense.

Now, on All Soulís Day shall we bring our laptops to the cemetery?


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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