Death in the Digital Age: Tech Startups Help Us Cope With Mortality
How do you want to be remembered?
It’s a weighty question that we’ve all thought about at one time or another. Everybody hopes to have meaningful impact on the world while they’re here, whether that means touching the lives of millions or even just one person. That’s never going to change.
But the ways in which we prepare for death and memorialize our dearly departed are changing. And, like nearly everything else these days, technology has a hand in it. Some groups may be trying to crack the code on immortality, like Calico, a company started by Google and Apple to research how to prolong the human lifespan. Others are using software to try to solve more tractable problems.
Yes, it seems even death—or, rather, the death industry—is “ripe for disruption,” says Boston serial entrepreneur and investor Dave Balter. He is working on a stealthy startup, Mylestoned, tied to how we remember the dead.
“There’s no question that we’re in an era where death has not only become something we’re more aware [of] and comfortable [with] as individuals, but also that the industry has not evolved significantly to match how we live today,” says Balter, who previously co-founded startups in social marketing, online skills assessments, and leadership development.
He’s referring to funeral homes and the traditional custom of burying the dead in caskets, beneath a headstone. People are more “transient” these days, and it’s less common for them to live near the cemetery where their deceased relatives are buried or to routinely visit their graves, Balter says. At the same time, more people are opting for cremation, in part, he argues, because they want their lives honored in a different way, perhaps by having their ashes scattered into the sea.
“You’re seeing a major, major shift in how people think about what to do with their loved ones,” Balter says. “We’re searching for something more meaningful—something to memorialize our loved ones in the places where they had impact.”
And that’s what he’s trying to do with his new startup. It’s still early, and Balter isn’t ready to share more details about what he’s planning.
But his company is certainly not the only one hatching new ways to deal with death in the digital age. Humans have always grappled with their own mortality, and Balter thinks there’s increased interest among entrepreneurs because people are becoming more thoughtful about the value of their contributions to the world, and they’re preparing more for their eventual eulogy.
Technology is helping to “reframe what death means” to us, Balter says.
“We’re starting to see our lives so much more clearly through social media, through all these lenses,” he says.
At the same time, people are becoming more cognizant of death and its role in life, Balter says. “There’s greater awareness of what that looks like in a realm where we can all see each other’s worlds.”
Other tech startups are trying to help people prepare for their own deaths. One example is Cake, a young Boston company that participated in this year’s MassChallenge startup accelerator program. Cake developed an app that helps guide users through end-of-life planning, including giving them a checklist of recommended steps like designating a healthcare proxy and buying life insurance, and allowing them to create an online handbook of posthumous preferences and wishes for loved ones, doctors, and lawyers to carry out.
The year-old company is led by Suelin Chen, an MIT-trained materials scientist and engineer who has worked as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital and directed The Laboratory at Harvard, a center for arts and sciences experimentation. Chen’s funeral playlist, according to her company’s website: “Islands in the Stream,” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton; Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”; and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen.
Another startup, Israel-based SafeBeyond, recently launched a service that allows users to create an online vault of important documents and messages that can be shared posthumously with loved ones.
With SafeBeyond, people can record video or audio messages or type up letters that will be released to their heirs upon a predetermined triggering event. Those triggers can be an exact date, say a child’s 18th birthday; a major life event, such as a future wedding (a trustee previously chosen by the deceased would notify SafeBeyond that the event has occurred); or when an heir visits a specified place that holds meaning to the family, such as a favorite vacation spot.
Users who leave messages behind can’t “make the sadness disappear,” but the digital relics can help loved ones “cope a little better with the fact that I’m gone,” SafeBeyond founder and CEO Moran Zur explains.
SafeBeyond is positioning its service as a sort of digital time capsule that provides “emotional life insurance,” Zur says.
Like many startups, the idea for SafeBeyond was born of personal experience. Zur, a native of Israel, was 25 when he lost his father to cancer in 2002. Four years later, as Zur was preparing to get married, his father’s absence was saddening and frustrating. There were times that he “didn’t feel like doing” a big wedding in Israel without his father, he says.
“There’s so many things that you don’t think about it, but you kind of never get a chance to discuss when you’re 25,” Zur says. “You don’t think about getting married, you don’t think about kids, you don’t think about other advice that might be needed in the most important moments. What would my father have said about that?”
That gave Zur the idea for SafeBeyond, which he put on the backburner for several years while he led a brokerage company. But in 2012, hardship struck again—Zur’s wife was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Their son was 3 years old at the time, he says.
After chemotherapy failed to help, the family turned to alternative treatments that improved her health. Fortunately, she is “doing well” these days, Zur says.
Zur took his wife’s illness as a call to leave his comfortable job in the financial industry and start SafeBeyond, which is offering its online storage service for free.
“I’m doing it for her, doing it for my son as the receiver of these future messages,” Zur says. “It might be that he receives mine before he receives hers.”
Zur says he raised $500,000 in seed funding for SafeBeyond, which is based in Tel Aviv, with an outpost in New York. The company currently has six employees.
Zur says an exit for the company is not his primary concern, and he thinks the business can be sustained by charging for premium features on top of the basic free service, which gives users 1 gigabyte of storage.
But what if SafeBeyond itself dies? The company chose Amazon Web Services to host documents in the cloud, which was partly a move to provide more peace of mind that users’ messages will be preserved and disseminated after they die, even if SafeBeyond doesn’t endure, Zur says. “Our cost will be really, really small to maintain all that,” he adds.
Other services SafeBeyond offers include posting a pre-written final posthumous message on users’ social media pages and storing social media login information so that designated loved ones can access the accounts. People might not realize that without the account passwords, sites like Dropbox or Gmail won’t allow heirs to access deceased users’ accounts, Zur says. Facebook, meanwhile, has set up a legacy contact option that allows a designee to look after your account after you’ve passed away.
The fate of your social media accounts may not be as consequential as what happens to your remains or your assets. But the reality is that, for better or worse, the information about you floating around the Web could be the only thing tied to you that lives forever, at least publicly.
“If someone will go and search my name in 20 years in Google or whatever is going to be the interface, you will find some stuff about me easily, even if I’m gone,” Zur says. “Life has changed in this digital age. It can be debated, [but] from my perspective, there’s no way to be forgotten. At least take responsibility and decide how you want to be remembered.”