The ways we deal with death are finding a new life online, according to research being published by a Kansas State University journalism professor and her colleague.
"You're accustomed to clipping an obituary from the newspaper and putting it in the family Bible, but with online obituary services you can e-mail them to anyone you know," said Bonnie Bressers, associate professor of journalism and mass communications at K-State.
She and Janice Hume at the University of Georgia, who is the principal researcher on the project, have studied the phenomenon of newspapers publishing obituaries online and what it means not only for mourners and the public memory of the dead but also the ethical implications for newspapers. They will present their work in August at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications conference in Boston.
Hume was a K-State journalism and mass communications faculty member from 1999-2001.
Hume and Bressers looked at obituaries in the largest circulation newspapers in each of nine geographic regions across the United States. All of these newspapers had a partnership with Legacy.com, an online obituary service. When readers click on a paid obituary from the newspaper's Web site, they're redirected to the Legacy site, which adds an online guestbook that allows visitors to post comments. The family can later e-mail the entire guestbook to other mourners.
The researchers found that although this capability has positive implications for a community of mourners, it poses a conundrum for newspapers. In part, this is because the Legacy pages recreate the look of the hosting newspaper.
"To the user who isn't savvy, he or she would assume it's still the newspaper's site," Bressers said. "In a hundred years, will readers distinguish the two? The ethical implications need to be considered."
Legacy vets comments for the subjective quality of appropriateness, which Bressers s
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Kansas State University