Rest in peace in a datasphinx

A coffin to die for is just one of the many goods and services available on the `deathnet', writes Mike Hewitt

The "Keep Death off the Roads" campaign seems to be paying off. The Grim Reaper has now transferred his attentions to the lanes of the Information Superhighway. Indeed, the number of death-related resources on the Internet is growing at a phenomenal rate.

Take DeathNet, "the world's first Web site to specialise in end-of-life issues" (http://www.islandnet.com/deathnet). It opens with the sound of a chilling death-knell (41K sound file) and the lines of John Donne: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Thereafter, the fun is fast and furious. Created by the executive director of the Right to Die Society of Canada, DeathNet's central theme is "A good death is the final part of a good life". As such, there are lists of euthanasia- related material, death workshops and a number of handy DIY tips.

"The Natural Death Centre" (http://new civ.org/worldtrans/natural death.html) comes to the rescue of impecunious Netsurfers horrified by the cost of dying. It has useful advice on how to perform inexpensive DIY and/or "green" funerals. There are also guidelines on how to be buried at sea, both economically and safely (don't sink the coffin in areas where fishing trawlers are likely to work). Another way to avoid incurring graveyard charges is to be buried at home. The ins and outs are discussed. One niggling problem here, apparently, is that a body in the back garden can reduce the value of a property by as much as 50 per cent. (It seems that not even an estate agent can pass off a garden grave as being a "feature".)

In addition to general advice, the Natural Death Centre lists dealers who sell inexpensive, self-assembly coffins. These come in flatpacks, like MFI furniture, and are very reasonable (if somewhat tacky-looking), at just pounds 25 each. From the cheap and nasty end of the market to the creme de la creme: the Carlos A Howard Funeral Home (http://www.melanet. com/melanet/ howard) is the world's first online undertaker. "Funeral costs rate the same as a major purchase of a home or automobile," it says. "At Carlos A Howard we understand the need to lessen those burdens. By using the Internet in the privacy of your own home you can make final wishes known. By purchasing over the Internet, all caskets are only $200 over cost, saving you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars overall. We can provide you our merchandise anywhere in the world."

Click on the icons and potential purchasers can view high-quality images of coffins and other funeral hardware. The Mediterranean Oak/Rosetan Crepe, for instance, looks very stylish (and reasonable) at just $1,100. With its integral Swing-Bar Hardware, Failsafe Liner, and Reversible Pillow and Overthrow, it's a coffin to die for.

Until the funeral industry comes up with a way of turning a body into bits and bytes, there will never be an online cemetery. There are, however, online memorials, rather like interactive obituary columns. You upload a piece of text describing the virtues of the deceased, plus a picture, if you like, and your memorial is then preserved for posterity on the Net. Probably the best known is the Virtual Memorial Garden (http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/umg). "Death is no longer the commonplace event that it once was," it says. "We have lost touch with the idea of rememberance [sic]. The Virtual Memorial Garden is a place where everyone can be remembered in many different ways. In the future we will provide cyberpyramids and datasphinxes, and perhaps electronic crypts devoted to whole families."

For those whose loved ones have four legs or beaks, there is the Virtual Pet Cemetery (http://www.lavamind.com/ pet4.html): "All of us, at one time or another, have had a pet we loved and lost. This home page is dedicated to all those given a shabby burial in the backyard or flushed down the toilet." "Tiger Fluff, 1980-1991," reads one poignant memorial. "Sweet little Lady Baby. She purrs in God's ear now." In contrast, the tale of Buster Brown (1992-1995) is pure tragedy: "He was a little brown mutt who weighed 20 pounds. He slept in my bed at night, he puked on my pillow. My mother accidently [sic] ran him over. We will all miss him."

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