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Tech by VICE

A Social Network for Dead People

This app lets you carry a virtual graveyard in your pocket.

by Gian Volpicelli
Feb 10 2015, 12:00pm

​Image:​ las-initially/Flickr

Cemeteries scare me. They are logically associated with death and, as a good western European, death is something I try to block out as much as possible (mainly by imagining that we'll live for​ever). I don't go to visit graveyards, and if there's anything I don't really want to be reminded of every time I use my smartphone it's dead people. But hey, maybe that's just me.

A team of Italian developers just launched an ​Indiegogo campaign for RipCemetery, a free mobile app that aims to become the first "social cemetery." Users will be able to create virtual memorials for their dead loved ones—people and pets alike—and to adorn them with pictures and videos. They could virtually visit them, leaving equally virtual flowers or remembrance messages on their graves. The app also allows users to build personal "family tombs" to mourn all their darling dead ones' avatars.

Jacopo Vitali, RipCemetery's creator, told me in a Skype conversation that the idea struck him after a tragic event. "A cousin with whom I was close died very young, and his family decided to cremate him, so I couldn't go to see him whenever I wanted," he said. "That's why I thought up a system to visit him anytime on my mobile device."

In effect, the app is a digital attempt to solve a very earthly problem. Booming world population is not only putting a strain on resources, water and, critically, space for the living—there is also a lack ​of room for the dead. 

One consequence of this is that cremation is skyrocketing everywhere: In the UK, about three quarters of corpses are incinerated. Very often ashes are scattered, leaving mourners without an actual place to pay tribute to. And even when they are not cremated, bodies are buried in cemete​ries that look less and less like spiritual places, having morphed into space-saving, soulless structures.

Image: RipCemetery

If you add that today more people move around the globe, far from the place where their relatives' remains are kept, it's unsurprising some are willing to experiment with new ways of remembering the dead. RipCemetery's answer is to offer a private, but also lively, social network-like context. "All the people who 'follow' the dead's profile are connected by a system of notifications," Vitali explained. "Every time that somebody leaves a flower or a message, you'll be notified: so the memory of the person never dies."

The very juxtaposition of the words "death" and "notification" sounds bizarre to me

Whoever opens a memorial (usually a relative) can also set different degrees of privacy establishing how many and who can actually follow the virtual grave. "But unlike Facebook memorial pages, lost amid a lot of irrelevant stuff, this is a private thing for private emotions," Vitali said. Living people can leave instructions on whether they want to be "buried" on RipCemetery or not.

As the very concept of cemetery is in flux, apps like this may be a glimpse of the future of mourning. There are a couple of things that trouble me, though. I'm not sure whether "social death" is a good way to honor the dead or if it risks to descend into parody–the very juxtaposition of the words "death" and "notification" sounds bizarre to me.

Coping also means detachment, acceptance that somebody is gone, and that we have to learn to go on without them. Carrying them around in our smartphones, ready to ping whenever somebody leaves them a bit-made lily, could bring about a persistence of the deceased we are not used to.