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E-mails from the Dead

Image (partial) from Terry Cornall at BigPond.net

Like a cyber séance, of sorts, these Internet services have become a means for the dead to speak to the living.

Imagine sitting down to check your e-mail and finding a message from your mother, who died six months ago, telling you how much she loved you and reminding you that her cat is due to visit the vet. Sounds spooky? It doesn’t have to be. It may just mean that, before she died, your mother decided to take advantage of a posthumous e-mail service, which, for a reasonable fee, offers you the chance to show your loved ones how much (or how little) you cared by leaving them each an e-mail to be delivered after you pass on.

Posthumous e-mail services are an example of what has been described as the “transcendence industries”, enterprises that can be loosely divided into two categories: those that place emphasis on pragmatic issues, and those that cater to emotional fears and needs (though there is, of course, much overlap between the two). The practical services allow you to leave vital posthumous instructions for family and friends concerning such things as funeral arrangements, financial records, estate details, and insurance plans. An example of this kind of enterprise is YouDeparted.com (“Prepare for the unexpected”), whose website emphasizes that their service “isn't about social networking for the dead or sending scary messages from the grave”:

It's about organizing your life… Would your family know the details if something happened to you? How would they access your email and online accounts? Who would know to take care of all the things you were responsible for? Taxes? Insurance? Where is the will or trust? Where is the key to the safe deposit box? What is the combination to your gym locker?

Ironically, although the emphasis is on practical concerns, sites like YouDeparted rarely mention the word “death”, preferring such euphemisms as “if something should happen to you” or “when the time comes”. An interesting exception is DeathSwitch.com , a program invented by a psychiatry professor at Baylor University that lets you to ensure that after you die, encrypted details like computer passwords and bank account numbers are automatically transmitted to your pre-selected loved ones. It’s hard to measure the popularity of these “transcendence services”, not only because the names of users are kept confidential, but because, for obvious reasons, it’s impossible to obtain customer feedback.

YouDeparted does offer prospective clients a “User Testimonial” from “Charles, Tokyo, Japan”, who comments: “I live abroad and if something had happened to me before I started using YouDeparted I don't really know how my family would have sorted everything out.” Of course, Charles still doesn’t know how his family will “sort everything out”, if something happens to him, but having enrolled in YouDeparted, he presumably feels more confident that, “when the time comes”, all his papers will be in order.

Other sites offer posthumous services directed at emotional, rather than practical needs. Through such slogans as “you only die once”, and “tomorrow may never come”, sites like TheLastEmail.com,

LetterFromBeyond.com and PostExpression.com encourage users to prepare e-mails to be sent to after they die -- a even an old-fashioned letter, “a gift your loved ones will treasure for a lifetime.” “After departing,” we’re told, “a message from the grave can be a great relief to the ones you leave behind.”

Most of these sites are built around cheap-looking templates with formulaic imagery of old people looking happy and at peace. The one exception, PostExpression has the most clearly articulated vision, which can be summed up by the site’s slogan “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” In the words of the site’s founder, Irish software engineer Mark Wrafter, “PostExpression allows you to communicate with people after you've died,” a service which, according to the site’s promotional materials, is appropriate for everyone. If you leave friends and family behind when you die, PostExpression “gives you the opportunity to communicate final words of encouragement, confession and love.”

But the service offers other options, too, for those with more complex and ambivalent emotions. “If you have Loved and Lost,” urges PostExpression, “Tell that person how you feel about them.” Even if “you’ve been dealt a bad hand in life” and you’re probably going to die alone and unloved, you can still communicate with the world on the PostExpression Blog. a place for you to “let the world hear what you have to say”, giving you “that final flamboyant finale you so richly deserve.” To date, however, no such deserving soul has yet passed on, since the PostExpression blog remains an empty void.

PostExpression also addresses the intricate netiquette of virtual relationships, since, as Wrafter points out, “many people now have more friends online than off.” This service considers the posthumous needs of the techno-savvy, habitués of MySpace, LiveJournal, Flickr and other community-based sites, as well as online gamers who can spend years building up an in-game personality and maintaining virtual relationships. “People know you, engage with you, expect your presence. Suddenly you are gone. It’s inexplicable,” says Wrafter.

In cases like this, “PostExpression can be used to break the news of your death to members of your online or gaming community, sending them a posthumous message as group, with a separate message for your best friend, which could include your login details so they can maintain your profile or even take over your avatar, if you see fit.” After all, just because you’re rotting in the grave doesn’t mean your friends can’t go on having fun.

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