Those who consider the Internet an indispensable part of their lives may be pleased to learn that it also can play a role after their deaths. A Web site called FinalThoughts.com offers its users a place to store e-mail messages online so they can be sent to family members and friends after the user has died. Think of it as e-mail from beyond the grave.
The site was created by Todd Michael Krim, 30, a lawyer from Los Angeles. He conceived of the idea on a turbulent trans-Atlantic flight to London last year. As the plane shook violently, he realized he hadn't properly said goodbye to his loved ones.
While the "afterlife e-mails," as they're called, became the basis for creating the site, Krim envisioned FinalThoughts as a free, one-stop source where people interested in death and dying could find information, such as descriptions of estate and funeral planning and online discussions about spirituality.
With help from his three brothers and $500,000 in seed money, Krim began operating FinalThoughts (www.finalthoughts.com) in September. It makes money from banner advertisements and commissions on purchases made by visitors who click on links to purchase products from advertisers such as Barnesandnoble.com.
"I'm on a mission to bring awareness to this issue and encourage advanced planning," said Krim, who has quit his legal job. "I want people to recognize this is something they should be doing for their family. The practical side is to ease the financial and emotional burdens by making these decisions in advance."
Even with the site's many other features, Krim is asked most often about the afterlife e-mail. Each user chooses a "guardian angel" who will notify FinalThoughts after the user has died. The site notifies intended recipients via e-mail that a message from the person who has died is waiting to be read.
To ensure that Uncle Joe or Aunt Mary doesn't keel over in shock after receiving a message that appears to have come from the great beyond, each recipient must click on a hyperlink to view the message. So far, no afterlife e-mail messages have been activated because no one who has signed up for the service has died.
Gayle Groves, 56, a private investigator in northern California, is convinced of the site's value. When her husband, Bob, died suddenly two years ago, Groves was distressed that he had never discussed funeral arrangements or other end-of-life issues, such as organ donation. Unsure of his wishes, Groves agonized over the decision, then donated his kidneys and liver for transplants, acting on what her sons thought their father would have wanted.
Groves was directed to FinalThoughts by a kidney transplant recipient who was familiar with the site's online organ donor consent forms. Now she takes solace in making her wishes available to her family and friends. In messages intended for her two grown sons, she writes that she is proud of how they have brought up their children and tells them, "You have both been worthwhile additions to the world."
She praises one son's strength in protecting her from the outside world after her husband's death and thanks the other for his sensitivity and compassion.
Not everything Groves has written strives to be profound. She has posted a small dictionary of her husband's nonsense language, defining words he sometimes used with close family and friends.
"The e-mail messages I've done are for posterity, something my family can look at whenever they want," Groves said. "It's comforting to open an e-mail message, to see these words of love reinforced. It's something I wished I had been able to have with my husband. And unlike something tangible, it can't be lost or destroyed."
Groves also has taken advantage of the site's Resource Centers, which include links to articles on coping with loss and to online support groups. The site also provides online forms in which users can instruct survivors on nearly every aspect of their wishes after their deaths. The personal property allocator, for example, lets relatives know who gets what, while the pet lover's organizer tells the family how to take care of the parakeets.
Krim emphasized that none of the documents or forms is legally binding and could not serve to invalidate a will. They function as organizational tools and give survivors a clear picture of things not typically addressed in a will, such as a particular song to be played at a funeral.
Many of the approximately 10,000 customers who have signed up for the free afterlife e-mail are younger than 40, Krim said. He reasons that people that age are not only more familiar with the Internet but also view talking about death as less taboo than their parents and grandparents.
Krim blanches at being referred to as a cyberspace funeral director, as he has been in several articles.
"FinalThoughts is not morbid at all," he said. "In many ways the site is life-affirming. We communicate that death is a natural human experience."