The Online Memorial: When Sorrow Becomes Frustration

Grief and LossRecently, I learned of the death of someone I considered “special” in my life, and experienced flashes of the early “stages” of grief: disbelief and quiet anger among them. Once I had reconciled myself to reality and learned the arrangement details, it was very natural for me to head over to the website of the funeral home involved to leave a few words about how much he had meant to me; words of compassionate support for his family. That was five days ago, and still my condolence—or any other one for that matter– is not visible on the tribute page.

I’m frustrated, yes; but sad, too. As I never received proof that my message was received by the funeral home in question (in that no confirmation message was triggered when I hit the submit button), I actually wonder if my time—my effort—was wasted; that my loving concern was unfelt by those it was intended for. We’re talking about a frustrating technological “disconnect”.

Naturally, I went over to Facebook to connect with the funeral professionals I “know” there, and (as always); my question was met with more than a few enthusiastic responses. And, as always, the conversation opened up a new area of concern—which I’ll address later (after a bit more research).

So, here’s the question. Do your website settings require you to approve online condolences prior to publication? If so, why?

Mark Thomas, of Watson-Thomas Funeral Home in Galesburg, Illinois simply said, “We review every condolence before publishing,” and confirmed that an email is triggered when a condolence is left by a site visitor. In fact, he shared that he gets “emails from my web admin at noon and midnight if I have condolences to release. So it’s pretty easy to keep it up-to-date.” Nice. That works well.

But is that built-in alert system common? Interestingly enough, the answer is…no. The FrontRunner Professional administrative system provides such notifications. Ashley Montroy shared “Yes, they get an email. They even get notified by email of any comments left on the Book of Memories, such as feedback from the family.” Again; nice; at least for FrontRunner clients, this fact makes the issue of neglecting to approve condolence messages moot.

Another funeral firm website company removes the funeral director from the mix altogether. Instead, they offer professional screening 365 days a year, typically within 2 to 4 hours of an entry being posted. They argue that this service means you’ll no longer feel pressure to constantly check for new condolences, and affirm the value of professional screening, with the comment, “on average, professional screeners filter 1 in 20 messages for inappropriate content.” For busy funeral directors, that sounds pretty sweet, I’m sure.

Yet, that assertion flies in the face of one funeral home owner’s remarks. Dale Clock, of Clock Life Story Funeral Home with three locations in Michigan (I love the tagline on their site: West Michigan’s Friendliest Funeral Home) was clear when he wrote: “Approvals of online condolences are a waste of time and effort. Of the tens of thousands of entries on our website over the last 10 plus years we have only had to remove a handful of inappropriate entries. You are just punishing everyone and delaying their ability to communicate to the family on the teeny tiny chance that there might be a problem.

When a “Teeny, Tiny” Chance Became a Permanent Reality

Here’s the scenario, and it’s (again) from personal experience. Last November a long-time friend died unexpectedly. When his body was found, and the local newspaper published the story, many local residents chose to leave warm and loving remarks…which became the basis for very hurtful remarks left by his wife. Remarks that will remain online in perpetuity, like this one: “there were several times…when he screamed at the kids and other students, parents and staff mentioned it to me. He was very verbally, and sometimes physically abusive to all of us.” This comment brought others: “I can’t believe that I can’t even say something nice about a classmate and high school band chum after he dies without my post bring criticized.” And the rancor spread…leaving a very disheartening (and very public) wake of bitterness. Certainly, in this case, approval of comments would have been smart.

So, Where Do You Stand?

Do you think approval necessary? Or is Dale right when he said that approvals are a waste of Book of Memories Online Tribute for William P. Staceytime and effort? I’ll tell you this; when I learned of my father death last year, I left three messages on his online memorial hosted by K.L. Brown Funeral Home in Jacksonville, Alabama (two in one day!). It was very gratifying to see them posted within seconds of submission. It was as if I was talking to him (after 20 years of not being welcome), and it pleased me to have a sense I was “heard”, even after so much time had passed in silence. But, what kind of experience would I have had if my messages were never posted? If (once again) I was effectively silenced, my heart would have been broken. I will always appreciate the staff of K.L. Brown for making the online condolence system work so effectively.

In the end, I’ve got to agree with Samantha Buzzolani, currently working with Lindenhurst Funeral Home in New York, who shared, “Review is a good thing, but if you’re going to set up a mobile/media feature such as an online tribute, you /have/ to keep up on it often. Once every couple of days just isn’t going to cut it. Social media (I count online condolences as social media) is like a pet that needs to be cared for.”

Smart woman, don’t you think? She understands that online tributes are essentially social media, and as will all “social” activities, you’ve got to participate, or at least facilitate participation. The funeral home involved in this recent negative experience failed to do that. I think my parting remark will be: Make sure your online tributes work for you, your families and those who care about them; not against you. Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • If you choose to require approval by either your staff or the family-appointed site administrator, then make sure there’s a system in place to support the process.
  • If you choose to set postings as automatic: then make sure you respond in a timely way, and appropriately, to any negative comments left about the deceased.
  • If you don’t want to be bothered, hire a company which uses professional screeners to respond—and monitor their activities as closely as possible.

Let’s keep this conversation going. How does your funeral firm, or web hosting company, currently deal with online condolences? Do you think they could be handled better? If so, how?

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