San Mateo County Times

Web site new way to honor the dead
Thursday May 27, 1999

By Liz Garone

REDWOOD CITY -- Jack Bell remembers seeing his father's grave for the first time.

"I was only 11 or 12," he said. "I thought to myself, 'This is my dad? A little piece of cement in the ground? That's it? That can't be.'"

For Bell, the standard marker at his father's Colma grave didn't do justice to the former San Mateo sheriff's deputy who died when Bell was 8 years old.

Last month, Bell decided to do something to honor his father by placing a virtual page on, a memorial Web site where Bell pays tribute to him with his own custom spot in cyberspace.

Often dismissed as impersonal and cold, the PC and the Web are quickly becoming the grief counselors of the late'90s. In growing numbers, people are turning to the Web to mourn the death of loved ones by posting their names, life stories, diary snippets and photographs.

"Conceivably, it could help," said Joyce Nash, a clinical psychologist with offices in Menlo Park and San Francisco. "Rather than having to go to the grave, one can go to the Web site any time of the day or night."

In addition, as the number of people being cremated increases, so might the interest in memorial Web sites, Nash said.

"There's no grave to go to any more," she said.

Some mourners, including Bell, keep the online tributes simple, treating them much like a standard newspaper obituary.

Bell's page is plain: a stark white background, "Owen Keith Bell, Jr." in bold black letters, birth and death vitals, contact information, and two sentences: "Dad, I love you and always will. The 49ers finally beat the Cow boys!"

"My dad was a big 49er fan. But he didn't live long enough to see them beat the Cowboys," said Bell, a meat department manager with Safeway who lives in Redwood City. "My ultimate hope is that someone who knew him will see the memorial and contact me. I want to know who my dad really was."

Where Bell took a no-frills approach to his page, others have set up elaborate virtual shrines with family photos, favorite audio clips -- anything from Barry Manilow to the Beatles -- and, almost inevitably, the minutia of the person's death.

"One of the most consuming fears of a parent that has lost a child is that they will be forgotten and their life will be unceremoniously lost," said Bobbie Jo Alberty, whose 15-year-old son died from injuries in 1992 in a bullriding accident in Oklahoma.

"It is torture, and if you can do something to make you feel as though it was not in vain -- or try to prevent anyone else from suf fering as you are -- you do any thing you can," Alberty said.

After her son's death, Alberty wrote a tribute to him, complete with details of the eight days he lived following the accident. She recently posted it -- along with a handful of family photos -- on a popular site called Virtual Memo rials.

"It (the online memorial) somehow serves to make you feel as though you are keeping them alive -- or, at least, their memory," she said. Unlike visiting a physical graveyard, Alberty said, she can visit the online memorial any time.

There are more than a dozen virtual cemeteries on the Web. Some charge a nominal mainte nance fee, like the World Wide Cemetery, which charges $15 for a memorial page in perpetuity.

This site is unusual because of one particular memorial, written by and about Michael Stanley Kibbee, who lived in Toronto, Canada.

Kibbee was the site's founder. The idea for it came to him after he learned he had terminal cancer; he died in March 1997. Today, World Wide Cemetery houses more than 130 memorials from 15 countries.

"The Web is an ideal place to announce the loss of someone we cherish and to erect a permanent monument to their memory," reads an introductory page. "Such virtual monuments, unlike real ones, will not weather with the passage of time and can be visited easily by people from around the world."

Other memorial sites appear to have less altruistic motives, with some charging upwards of $250 for the most elaborate designs.

Imminent Domain, based in Hesperia, in San Bernardino County, is one of these sites.

Visitors pay $299.95 for a platinum site, the company's "finest." The fee includes design, mainte nance and one year of hosting the site. After the first year, the cost drops to a $12 annual mainte nance fee. Sites start at $39.95, for a bronze version. Free text-only obituaries that stay online for 90 days also are available.

"I've looked around on the Web. Dollar for dollar, nobody has what I have to offer," said Roland Rob erts, who owns and maintains

"People don't like to talk about death," said Roberts, a mattress salesman and Web site developer. "So, I'm sorry if I've offended anyone, but the fact is there is a market for it."

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