Voices from beyond the grave

Observations on afterlife

If all goes to plan for the US patent-seeker Robert Barrows, deceased people will soon be able to communicate messages to loved ones.

Barrows, a specialist in video advertising, has invented a hollow tombstone fitted with a liquid-crystal-display touch-screen TV and a hard drive or microchip memory. Mourners, or just plain nosy people, can listen through a set of wireless headphones to a dead person's life story, their final say in an argument, or kind words for loved ones. Family members need not worry about privacy. If the messages are intended to be private they can be encoded for just family and friends. As death can come unexpectedly, Barrows recommends recording such messages for loved ones when writing a will.

The suggested source of energy for the high-tech tombstone is the cemetery's lighting and electrical system. Coin-operated switches would finance maintenance. According to Barrow, mourners should not despair, because the estate of the deceased would also profit. The average dead person might not attract enough visitors to cover the cost of installing an LCD tombstone, but someone of historical significance or a former pop star could continue to generate a fortune, even in death.

Although his invention is among the most extravagant, Barrows is not the only man to envisage a new generation of electronic headstones. Making Everlasting Memories, a Cincinnati-based American company, plans to revolutionise memorials with gravestones that display montages of photos and tributes from friends and family. The company also runs a website, www.mem.com, where mourners can purchase an "everlasting memorial" for $595. It would contain a biography, written tributes and 20 photographs. Once purchased, the memorial would be posted on the website, where visitors could browse the site by date, name or location. Curious guests would be able to read the life stories of people ranging from the obscure to the illustrious. Currently, Ronald Reagan's is the top featured story.

Mourners who cannot afford $600 to erect a monument in cyberspace can find a cheaper option at www.legacy.com. This "leading provider of online obitu-ary solutions for the newspaper industry" posts obituaries with links to guest books, funeral homes, charities, and even florists. Legacy.com also offers a Legacy Life Story package similar to the Making Everlasting Memorial, at the more affordable price of $195.

Touch-screen tombstones and photo-montage gravestones signal a new technological approach to the afterlife. They are also in tune with our 21st-century obsessions with wealth and influence. The richest among us can not only turn our deaths into financial enterprises, but we can also continue to foist our thoughts on others from beyond the grave.