Bob Gold's mother had a remarkable life: Born in Hungary, she survived three Nazi concentration camps, married a refugee from Romania and moved to the United States, where she and her husband worked hard and raised two sons.
Rosa Gold died two years ago at the age of 94, but her son wants future great-grandchildren to know her as he did. Earlier this year, the San Francisco advertising executive used a new Facebook app called Evertalk to create an online memorial to his mother, inviting relatives around the world to contribute their memories and photos, too.
"The whole idea is for people to share," Gold said. "Maybe a cousin or someone has some photos of Mom and Pop that I never saw."
Almost since the Web began, people have been creating digital memorials for loved ones or even online epitaphs for themselves. While there are several companies that help build and host such sites, Evertalk is aimed at the growing ranks of Facebook users who are already accustomed to sharing messages, photos and other mementos on the giant social network.
"People want to remember their loved ones," said Russ Hearl, Evertalk's founder. "As we increasingly live our lives online, new ways to memorialize people have sprung up in different places. I wanted to build something that was aligned with the way people use Facebook today."
Facebook itself offers some options for commemorating a person's life, including preserving the timeline of a Facebook user who has died. (Facebook will also delete a deceased person's profile at a family member's request.) Once a timeline is preserved, or put into "memorialized" status, only their Facebook friends can view it and post new messages.
If the person who died wasn't a Facebook user, it's possible for someone else to create a new page dedicated to their memory, similar to a "fan page" that's created for a business or celebrity. Depending on the settings chosen by the person who creates it, other Facebook users can post messages to that page.
Evertalk memorials are somewhat similar, but with added features and an easy-to-use format. The app includes a ready-made template for uploading photos, biographical material and information about funeral services. It lets visitors add messages to a guest book, post their own photos or even donate to a fund for funeral costs or medical bills.
Because it's an application within Facebook, Hearl said, Evertalk can also send updates to a visitor's regular Facebook feed, alerting friends to a new photo or message that's been posted on a memorial. An Evertalk page is free for the first month and then costs $2 a month; it also has a free option for users who agree to let Evertalk offer "virtual flower" bouquets for sale to people who visit a memorial page.
One thing Evertalk can't do is incorporate messages, photos or other material that the subject of the memorial may have posted on their Facebook timeline before dying. Facebook doesn't let third parties take over someone's account or alter someone's timeline after that person dies.
That's why some experts urge people to make arrangements for handing their passwords to a trusted person when they die. Evan Carroll, co-author of the book "Your Digital Afterlife," believes people should consider what will happen to all the digital files, photos and other material they keep in password-protected accounts on sites such as Facebook, Google's (GOOG) Gmail or Yahoo's (YHOO) Flickr.
Since the policies of each company can vary, Carroll warned, "if you choose not to plan ahead, you have no guarantees about what happens to your digital assets." Carroll's blog, "The Digital Beyond," maintains a list of online services, including Legacy Locker and SecureSafe, that let users store passwords, copies of digital files and messages that will be emailed or otherwise distributed to loved ones when they die.
Some online services will even help people create their own memorial pages -- with autobiographical stories, photos, letters to loved ones and instructions about funeral arrangements.
"Define your legacy and tell your story your own way," says a promotional video for Bcelebrated.com, which lets a user designate certain people who may access the site when the user dies. The service will then send prearranged emails to notify others, along with passwords allowing them to view private letters or pages.
"We wanted to enable people to start preparing these things when they're healthy and able to do it," said co-founder Debra Joy of Santa Monica, who added that Bcelebrated has about 500 registered accounts and is currently "in conversation with a large media company that wants to acquire us."
Even while the idea of sharing memories online is appealing, a digital tribute may not last forever. Internet technology changes constantly, and so do many businesses.
One San Francisco startup called 1000memories launched two years ago with the goal of helping people create Web-based memorials for loved ones. The company has since changed its focus to helping people digitize old photos and store them in online albums to share with others.
Even so, Carroll echoed Hearl in saying that interest in online memorials is growing, as people spend more and more time online. "People want to feel connected when they have a loss," he added.
Contact BrandonBailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey
Several companies and groups offer help with building an online memorial or preserving your own digital legacy. Here are some examples:
Online tributes: Evertalk is an app for creating memorials on Facebook. Legacy.com maintains online guest books in conjunction with newspaper obituaries, but also will host a memorial page for $49 a year. MemorialMatters.com is another fee-based site, while GoneTooSoon.org relies on donations.
Digital legacies: Bcelebrated.com lets you post your autobiography, photos and private messages on a site "where friends and family will celebrate your life" after you're gone; MyWonderfulLife.com lets users leave funeral instructions and pass along messages and photos.
Digital lockers: SecureSafe.com has a fee-based "Data Inheritance" service that lets you transfer documents and passwords to beneficiaries after you die. LegacyLocker.com is a similar service.
More online services are listed at TheDigitalBeyond.com