Dearly departed remain just that on Web site

November 05, 2006|By New York Times News Service

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Long-silent mistresses, disgruntled former employees, estranged family members - Katie Falzone has seen them all.

They turn to the online guest books at the obituary Web site where she works, Legacy.com, to convey unflattering thoughts about the recently departed.

It is Falzone's job to stop them.

In a room here full of glowing computer terminals and hushed conversations, she and 44 other screeners pore over the 18,000 notes sent daily about the newly deceased, hoping to catch the backhanded compliments, mean-spirited innuendo and airing of dark family secrets.

Dissing the dead, as these screeners call it, has become a costly and complicated problem for Legacy and other Web sites where people gather to mourn online.

Legacy, which is eight years old, carries a death notice or obituary for virtually all the roughly 2.4 million people who die each year, but few foresaw how nasty some of the postings to its guest books would be.

Some of the snubs are blunt. "Everyone gets their due," a former client writes of an accountant accused of embezzlement.

Or, "I sincerely hope the Lord has more mercy on him than he had on me during my years reporting to him at the Welfare Department."

Others are subtler: "She never took the time to meet me, but I understand she was a wonderful grandmother to her other grandchildren."

"Reading the obit, he sounds like he was a great father," says another, which is signed, "His son Peter."

Hayes Ferguson, the company's chief operating officer, said, "Most often it's cases of Sue posting that he was the love of my life and then we check, and the wife's name is Mary." The company said none of these snubs made it online.

Legacy is paid by more than 300 newspapers, including The Sun and The New York Times, to publish their death notices and obituaries, and mourners can pay a fee to keep the guest books up longer.

By attaching a publicly accessible guest book to most of the obituaries, the site has provided a new way to grieve, and in the process has all but cornered the market.

The company dedicates at least 30 percent of its budget, and 45 of its 75 employees, to catching the personal attacks and other inappropriate comments, nearly 200,000 in all, submitted each year.

"The amount of material from people claiming to have been molested by the person is the only thing that still surprises me," said Falzone, who has been policing the site for 4 1/2 years.

"When they're face-to-face at a funeral, people don't have the guts to do something like that and write something offensive," said Justin Rowan, embalmer for the Freyvogel Sons Funeral Home in Pittsburgh. "On the Internet, people might not even know the guy, but they might feel free to write something."

Kenneth J. Doka, a professor of gerontology at the College of New Rochelle in suburban New York, agrees that the Internet has fostered a culture of candor.

"In more than 35 years of grief counseling," Doka said, "I can cite only a couple of instances of people communicating mean things to family of someone who died by sending a letter or writing in the paper guest book."

Legacy's struggles are not unique, even if no other obituary Web site compares to it in size: more than 6 million visitors a month and revenue, according to research by the Information Access Co., topping $5.9 million a year.

"It's a huge problem for us," said Jim Tipton, founder of www.findagrave.com, which lists more than 13 million grave markers and their locations and offers a way to post comments. At least once a week, the site bans comment for specific pages.

Mike Patterson, founder of MyDeathSpace.com, which features the profile pages of about 25 MySpace members who have died, said so many people had been writing nasty things that he removed the comment function from the site in June.

Patterson restored it two months later, after adding software that flags keywords and requiring users to register if they want to post comments.

Still, problems arise.

Pamela Tay said she felt ill when she discovered a discussion on MyDeathSpace.com about her 18-year-old daughter, Kelli Laine, who was killed by a drunken driver in 2001.

"It was Mother's Day when I came across it, and that is the hardest day of the year for any mother who has lost their child," Tay said. "They were joking about her sexually. They were saying it was my fault for letting Kelli go out that night."

After she complained about the postings, they were taken down, only to re-emerge later.

"It is so incredible to me that people say these things," Tay said.

With one comment sent every five seconds, Legacy's workload is steep; the company vets everything before it is posted, unlike smaller sites with obituary content.

"The goal is to ensure no one gets offended and to maintain the quality of the site," said Ferguson.

Much of the work stems from spammers' use of the guest books to sell coffins, even Viagra.

Craftier postings are harder to catch. For example, a former parishioner sends a long and fawning testimonial about a priest who has just died and parenthetically includes a link to a site accusing the priest of sexual abuse.

Some disclosures are inadvertent. A relative mentions the suicide of the departed, but the deceased's children have not been told the cause of death.

Grief often brings a desire to get things off one's chest. Many people write with brutal candor about domestic violence.

"With the molestation ones," Falzone said, "there is really no point contacting the police, because the accused is already dead."

Cries for help can be taxing for Legacy. Ferguson described the time spent tracking down the operator of a local funeral home to check on a grieving father who had said in his son's guest book that he was thinking of killing himself.

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