Mourning in Cyberspace

Technology has taken on a life of its own in the ancient practice of mourning

Since ancient times, humans have memorialized their deceased loved ones. But in the past 20 years, new rites and rituals inspired by technology have greatly influenced the way loved ones are mourned.

QR codes on tombstones? Virtual candles on memorial websites? When it comes to the dearly departed, anything goes for the generations left behind and are connecting in cyberspace.

In this new era, friends and family can share their sorrow through comments on Facebook, order flowers or donate to charitable causes online, upload video tributes on You Tube and express sadness through online guest books. Those who can't attend a funeral service in person can replay a streaming video in the comfort of their home.

In fact, one of Traverse City's most familiar family-owned businesses is on the forefront of the latest in funeral service technology.

Located in the 19th century, 34-room Perry Hannah House, the Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home has been serving Traverse City families since 1976. But don't let the classic Victorian structure on Sixth Street fool you: This place is wired and ready for 21st century needs.

Owners Dan and Peg Jonkhoff, along with their growing staff, provide families with options that may have seemed impossible 20 years ago. For example, flat screens that enable an overflow crowd to view a digital memorial broadcast are discreetly tucked into the walls and corners of the century-old home.

"We started it years ago so people could actually see the funeral service," said Dan Jonkhoff, a fifth-generation funeral director. "We put speakers around the house, but that wasn't good enough. So we installed TVs and now we've upgraded those to flat screens."

Blending technological advances into a serene, historically important environment has inspired and informed the Jonkhoff's changes.

"We're always trying to do things better for the families," said Peg Jonkhoff, co-owner and administrative director. "We've made several technology changes, but we've always blended the technology into the surroundings."

About eight years ago, Reynolds Jonkhoff's media specialist Kyle Barsheff began offering video tributes for families.

"We ask them to provide up to 50 photographs of their loved one and we will scan them, put them to music and provide a DVD in a special case for them in 24 hours," Barsheff said.

Using the most current digital equipment, Barsheff also provides live web streaming of a service for families and friends who cannot attend in person.

Lindsey (Jonkhoff) Rogers, a sixth generation funeral director, keeps the family business ahead of the tech curve by attending regional and national seminars on funeral trends.

"Technology is huge. For example, we used to have printed Holy Cards that were pretty standard with the image of a cross or other symbol," she said. "Now we're able to personalize them for each family. It's a much more personal service we're able to offer, thanks to technology."

At the home's website ( family and friends can view a loved one's online obituary, send flowers, offer online condolences or make an appropriate purchase at the Sympathy Store. In a few clicks, a mourner can sign up to receive an affirming email every day for a year at "365 Days of Grief Support."

Technology also plays a major role at the Life Story Funeral Home, according to owner Vaughn Seavolt, who opened his business in 2008 on Munson Avenue in Traverse City.

"When I started the business, I decided we had to bring funeral services into the 21st century," Seavolt said. "We're connecting family and friends at a crucial time of their lives, and technology helps us do that."

At its website, visitors can watch a "visual film," sign a guest book, share memories, write a eulogy, make contributions, order flowers and more. A major component of Life Story's funeral services is a personalized four-page, full-color "Life Stories" publication.

The creation of the publication begins with an interview with the family about their loved one. He asks about basic information including birthdates, marital history, education, job history and military service, along with hobbies and personality traits.

Seavolt then emails the information, along with up to 22 photos, to a team of writers and graphic artists based in Kalamazoo. That team writes and designs the four-page "Life Story" booklet, which can be produced in as little as 24 hours in some cases.

"We really couldn't do that without technology," Seavolt said. "The Life Story is on the web page and family who cannot attend the service can print it off and have the same Life Story as those in attendance."

In one of the most recent developments offered by both Life Story and Reynolds-Jonkoff, families can affix a quick response (QR) code chip to a tombstone of their beloved so visitors to the grave can use their smart phone to pull up the obituary, photos or video of the departed.

This technology is so new that Reynolds-Jonkhoff has provided only one service involving a QR chip and Life Story has yet to provide one, Seavolt said. BN