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Published August 17 2012

Part 3 of 3: The technology behind saying goodbye

FARGO - After Lissa Meyer’s 9-year-old brother Daniel died in a 1999 gun accident, she found support from people around her.

She also found help in an online support group.

“Had I been face to face in, say, a support group session … I might not have said a lot of the stuff that I did,” said the Fargo resident, who grew up in Hoffman, Minn. “You could form the bonds, but, yet, you could sort of hide behind the anonymity of being online.”

Kim Makonnen’s brother died from a heart attack in May at the age of 46. One way she processed the hurt was to create digital memorial images of her brother and share them on Facebook.

“It makes me feel better if I can at least do that now that he’s passed away,” said the 39-year-old Fargo addiction counselor. “I get a lot of positive feedback, positive thoughts on (Facebook), which also makes me feel great.”

One option for families is a tribute video, a series of images from the loved one’s life set to music. Steve Wright, owner and president of Wright Funeral Home, said about 70 percent of families they work with choose to have a video tribute.

“We survey every family that we serve … and very frequently, people will cite the video tribute as one of the most meaningful pieces,” said Wright, whose company has locations in Moorhead, Hawley, Minn., and Lake Park, Minn.

Alex Rydell, funeral director at Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home in Fargo, believes the videos offer families “the opportunity to relive all the good memories of the person’s life. It’s a sad time; it’s a hard time to go through.”

Rydell believes the videos provide families with “a good opportunity to kind of see the celebration part of things, the celebration of the person’s life.”

Some funeral homes also record services on video.

“And what’s nice about it is, with technology I’ve got all this stuff saved,” said Jim Boulger, of Boulger Funeral Home, which has locations in Fargo, Kindred, N.D., and Hillsboro, N.D. “We’ve got a server all these things are backed up on.”

There are other uses of video in the funeral industry. Tom Pence, a funeral director at Korsmo Funeral Services in Moorhead, said they had a family use the online talk/video service Skype to broadcast a service to someone who couldn’t make it to the funeral.

The digital age hasn’t only made video more accessible. Funeral home websites have become more interactive.

On the Hanson-Runsvold website, users can leave comments for the family on a memorial page, they can order flowers, books and even food, and they can have those items delivered to the funeral home or directly to the family. People can upload images and videos, and share the memorial page on Facebook, Twitter or via email.

“We’ve seen many family members posting their own thoughts on the memorial page,” Rydell said, “which is really nice to see because sometimes they might not be in a state of mind to stand up at a prayer service and share a story about Dad or Mom. This gives them a place to do that.”

When it comes to decisions on technology, funeral directors know it’s really about doing what the family wants.

“If you’re into email and you’re into using our website, do it,” Boulger said. “If you aren’t, we’ll find a different way to do it.”

Beyond what’s on the screen and online, advances in desktop publishing allow families more options to personalize funeral materials and create something that’s more specific to the lost loved one.

Wright Funeral Home has a catalog of themes for programs, thank-you notes, candle overlays and more.

“I don’t care if you like racing cars or driving a backhoe or hunting or you name it,” Wright said. “We’ve never run across somebody that we couldn’t find something that just zeroed in on their life.”

Wright funeral director Lisa Grossman said, “We had one person who was an accordion player, and there was an accordion (theme).”

“Families can personalize (funeral programs) however they want, and they can make change after change after change until it’s just right for them,” said Kirk Carlson, funeral director at West Funeral Home, which has locations in West Fargo and Casselton, N.D.

The way obituaries are written has also changed for some funeral homes. Boulger has families sit down with him in a room with a large screen so they can write together. The family can offer instant feedback, he said, and it allows them to be more directly involved.

Communication technology available now also means those working through grief have a much larger support community available.

“They can connect with people throughout the world who have had similar situations in their lives. ... They’re not alone,” Carlson said. “It’s not a small, little community; it’s a large community when you use technology.”

It gives families a way to express their own emotions and experiences of grief.

“The more you can talk, the better off you are,” Carlson said.

Some of the technology advances in the funeral industry are behind the scenes. Pence said funeral homes have changed much like other businesses have. Documents and images are exchanged digitally and obituaries are submitted online.

Like other funeral homes, Korsmo offers video tributes, online guest books and other digital services. Still, Pence said they’re cautious about how they move forward. They want to make sure they keep the focus where it should be.

“We don’t want the technology to kind of be the funeral,” he said.

“They’re coming to a service to pay their respects to an individual, whether it’s a celebration service or a funeral,” Pence said. “We just don’t want to let the technology get carried away.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

Where to get help

Hospice of the Red River Valley provides support for individuals struggling after the loss of a loved one. Survivors can get help through Hospice even if the deceased was not under Hospice care. For more information, visit www.hrrv.org or call (800) 237-4629