Funeral trade show includes twist to online memorial services

Think of it as the social networking site people are dying to join.

A California company has launched a Web service that uses a virtual cemetery as a social forum for friends and loved ones of the deceased.

The company, Eternal Space, demonstrated the product this week during a funeral industry conference at Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

It’s a new spin on the old practice of online memorials.

The service allows friends and families to upload photos and videos of the deceased and communicate and reminisce with each other.

Unlike many online memorials that are typically curated by a small group of people, Eternal Space offers the capability to compile countless multimedia tributes from the departed’s entire social network.

It shows that even in the deepest of economic recessions, the business of bereavement remains vibrant and adaptive.

Eternal Space, for example, is marketed as a service that survives much longer than typical funerary trappings such as flowers or a tearful eulogy.

“A casket goes in the ground and you never see it,” said Sean Gharavi, vice president of marketing for the Los Angeles-based Eternal Space. “This is one of the only things that lasts.”

Although it has been live for several weeks, Gharavi said the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association trade show and convention in Las Vegas was the service’s formal debut to the industry.

The four-day event includes about 300 exhibitors and ends today.

In addition to an exhibit by Eternal Space, there were ecologically friendly caskets, sports-themed urns and countless other funerary accessories for an industry that generated about $20.5 billion in revenue in 2008.

The 2009 show at Mandalay Bay had a record attendance of about 1,400 people, said association President Gregg Williamson.

“Everybody is looking to make sure they aren’t missing something,” Williamson said.

And demand is steady for death-related services despite a recession that has hurt many industries.

“There is a significant need in all communities … for what we do,” Williamson said. “We haven’t felt it like the car dealerships.”

Jack Feather of Bedford, Pa., got into the bereavement business in 2001.

Feather, a former welder, plumber, electrician and custom motorcycle enthusiast, helped develop a hearse that’s pulled by a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

“All of those skills I developed over the years had a fit with this stuff,” he said.

Feather developed the hearse to honor a motorcycle enthusiast friend who died of brain cancer. It is designed to resemble the hearse that hauled the body of gunfighter Billy Clanton through Tombstone, Ariz., in 1881.

The original model wasn’t complete until two weeks after Feather’s friend died. But the reaction to the hearse convinced Feather to go into business.

He has sold about 25 units, mostly to funeral homes. They cost about $78,000 and are built with a Fiberglas body, etched glass windows and button-tuck, burgundy velvet interior.

The bike and hearse are engineered to handle smoothly at up to 80 mph and brake safely.

Feather and two employees build the hearses in a Pennsylvania building that was originally a repair shop for Packards.

He says the hearse is a respectful tribute, and about the only thing he’s ever seen that prompts mourners to shoot photos at a funeral.

“Whatever you do, it has to be of the highest quality,” he said.

Gharavi demonstrated Eternal Space for observers using a memorial he created in tribute of President John F. Kennedy.

The front page is a three-dimensional scene of the builder’s choosing. The scenery choices include meadows, mountains, forest and desert.

The creator can then choose to add landscaping features such as trees, benches, an urn, tombstone or mausoleum.

Eternal Space President Jay Goss says the scenery, like any real-world cemetery, is designed to be restful, serene and emotive.

Beyond the landing page are spaces for photos and videos uploaded by mourners. There’s also a virtual guest book and virtual journal for visitors to sign and the bereaved to record their thoughts. Mourners can also interact with each other through the site.

Usually a family member will act as a gatekeeper who can invite people to join or approve or prohibit uploads. A memorial can also be opened to the public.

“It is not terribly dissimilar to assembling your profile on Facebook,” Goss said.

So far about 20 funeral homes and crematoriums in six states have bought into the service, Goss said. They can pay as much as $595 for initial access and choose to pass the cost on to the bill for a service or include it as part of a package.

Goss and Gharavi say since the service is new it will take a while for funeral service operators to determine how best to price the product.

In addition to a one-time buy-in or subscription, there is an option for mourners to buy virtual tribute gifts to adorn the site.

But even if they don’t purchase anything, the online memorials are maintained in perpetuity by Eternal Space at no additional charge and there is no extra charge to upload new photos or videos.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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