Night of the Living Information

While they haven’t supplanted chiseled marble, QR codes do provide additional information about a deceased loved one, such as Tim Tuttiett.

Amidst the summer grasses
Lie the graves of Saga’s beauties.

The antithetic electric power of instant information that reverses social explosion into implosion, private enterprise into organization man, and expanding empires into common markets, has obtained as little recognition as the written word.
-Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

My grandmother had a family Bible. Not only a spiritual story, the family Bible often tells the story of the family itself. Each feathery sheet of my grandmother’s Bible revealed photographs, letters, obituaries and birth announcements, cards, newspaper clippings, alongside the parables and psalms. Today there are myriad ways to record a family’s history, most with less religious ties than the family Bible. Gravestone QR codes are one of these ways to record a family member’s life, whether the member in questions is the family matriarch or the family black sheep. Normally affixed to the base of a tombstone, when scanned with a smartphone, tombstone QR codes may link to a web page with a detailed biography or audio/video of or about the deceased and their family.

The QR code, or “Quick Response” code, is not your grandmother’s Bible, or even your grandmother’s barcode. Since they store information horizontally as well as vertically (thus creating the varied black and white patterns), one can store a great deal of information in a QR code.  Some informational videos about funereal QR codes suffer from a terrible case of hokiness or a bad case of uncanny valley, but they do address some good reasons why families, or even the future deceased, might want to consider adopting a death plan that includes one of these “living headstones,” as one video unsettling puts it. The use of QR codes on gravestones has begun to gather interest in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, where renowned gravestone-maker Ishi no Koe (“Voice of the Stone”) has been offering the QR code service. The Wall Street Journal Tech Blog points out QR code gravestones can provide an integral collective memory for a community or family, although “in future centuries historians could be scratching their heads trying to figure out the meaning of these strange hieroglyphics”.

The grave stele of Hegeso, late fifth-century to early fourth-century BCE.

If indeed those future historians scratch their heads they will be in good company. Originally erected to keep hungry and undiscriminating animals at bay, tombstones have since become markers that give onlookers insight into the deceased’s life. As time passes, these markers not only indicate something about the man or woman buried, but the culture into which they were born. The grave stelae of ancient Athens depicted everyday scenes, which reflected the life of the person now buried. Leader argues that the grave stele of Hegeso creates gender while it represents and commemorates the life of a high-class Athenian woman. The fact that the deceased woman is represented sitting in a chair, indicative of interior “feminine” space, with a slave handing her some sort of clothing (Leader suggests that it is jewelry) not only shows what daily life may have been like for her, but how a woman in her position should act (689). Symbols exclusively for males or for females can be found in various cultures, including on the Islamic grave markers in Pakistan.  Also drawing upon folklore-inspired geometric and floral patterns, male symbols include weapons and prayer mats, while female symbols include jewelry and personal symbols such as a sewing machine or a teapot (Frembgen 204-206).

The epitaphs of funereal monuments in ancient Greece were concerned primarily with status and ethnicity (Day). Day gives the following example of an archetypal epitaph:

“Let each man, whether a citizen or foreigner coming from elsewhere, pass by only after pitying Tettichos, a good man, who perished in war and lost his fresh youthfulness. Once you have lamented this, move on to a good deed” (Day 17).

A small section of Trajan’s Column, which was erected after the Roman army’s decisive triumph over the Dacian Kingdom in the early 2nd century.

Indeed, the epitaph of Aeschylus, who won renown throughout ancient Greece as a tragedian, mentions only his part in the astounding victory at Marathon:

“Beneath this monument lies Aeschylus, Athenian, son of Euphorion, who perished in wheat-bearing Gela.
Of his esteemed courage the grove of Marathon could speak, and the long-haired Persian knows it well” (Gibson).

In the sprawling empire that was ancient Rome, commemoration of soldiers was difficult. Triumphal monuments “were not intended to capture the life, times, and deaths of the rank and file but the fortunes of one man” (Hope 84), the commander of the army. Individual soldiers, more often than not, were cremated and interred in mass graves in the foreign countries where they fell (Hope 87). If Roman soldiers died closer to home or during peacetime, less pragmatism and more piety was expected and the dead would be buried individually, with some sort of visual commemoration.

A Hebrew inscription on a headstone in Sobědruhy, Czech Republic.

Gravestones, and our attitudes towards and expectations of them, continually change. Says Hamscher, “the inscriptions and images on tombstones, monuments, and other objects of funerary art provide important insights into views of death, the relationships between the living and the dead, religious beliefs, and gender and class distinctions” (40). In order to better understand a particular culture, historians and anthropologists often study the form and content of gravestones. In Moore’s somewhat lackadaisical amble around various cemeteries she gains insight into the personal lives of the dead (383-390). The iconography on tombstones along the Atlantic coast of Congo and the materials used to create them speak volumes about the country’s fraught history of slavery, as well as the community’s dedication to their own traditions (Denbow 404-423). For Moshe Barasch Jewish tombstones play a prominent role in his childhood memories while growing up in the Ukrainian town of Czernowitz. Barasch states that the Hebrew lettering on Jewish tombstones is central to the presentation of these monuments: “What we see on the tombstones are not characters constructed in the geometric manner so well known in the history of European art; the carved letters of the tombstones are clearly derived from scripts written with a quilt pen on parchment. They recall, however faintly, a scribe’s hand” (129).

Kuala Lumpur is home to Chinese cemeteries in Pengerang and Johor, and are arguably the most culturally eclectic cemeteries in the world. The cemeteries include the graves of Buddhists from multiple countries, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians (mostly soldier who died during WWII), and multiple clans. Jogathon Warisan, a race for youths, cuts through these cemeteries. The goal of the race is to get kids active while they learn about various cultural burial practices and monuments, including their own. When it was proposed that 200,000 graves and traditional gravestones be moved to make way for urban development, citizens expressed outrage. While active local participation kept the urban development plan at bay, recently another proposal to move Chinese cemeteries in Kuala Lumpur was put forward in order to support a Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development project.

The Grave-Free Promotion Society of Japan presents interesting questions about the preservation of personal, community, and even national heritage. The Grave-Free Promotion Society is dedicated to the practice of shizensou, the scattering of ashes. Citing lack of space for graves, the environmental benefits, and cultural tradition, the Grave-Free Promotion Society strives to repeal legislation that forbids placing ashes anywhere other than a grave. In order to preserve biographical knowledge of the deceased without gravestones these families or communities may choose to use oral or digital means preservation. Maybe the family Bible is due for a revival?

Oh, the stories that QR code could tell. The barcode-free but pucker-rich gravestone of Oscar Wilde.

In looking at the gravestone
Upon the green sod floor,
I thought to see chiseled there
Just a trifle more.

Upon the silent tablet
The name and dates it shared,
But beyond key epithet
Stone could not have cared.

2011© Kate MacKeigan


Barasch, Moshe. “Reflections on Tombstones: Childhood Memories.” Artibus et Historiae 9.17 (1988): 127-135. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

Day, Joseph W. “Rituals in Stone: Early Greek Grave Epigrams and Monuments.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 109 (1989): 16-28. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

Denbow, James. “Heart and Soul: Glimpses of Ideology and Cosmology in the Iconography of Tombstones from the Loango Coast of Central Africa.” The Journal of American Folklore 112.445 (1999): 404-423. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

Frembgen, Jürgen Wasim. “Religious Folk Art as an Expression of Identity: Muslim Tombstones in the Gangar Mountains of Pakistan.” Muqarnas 15 (1998): 200-210. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

Gibson, Christopher P., Trans. Epitaph of Aeschylus. (2012).

Hamscher, Albert. N. “Talking Tombstones: History in the Cemetery.” OAH Magazine of History 17.2 (2003): 40-45. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

Hope, Valerie M. “Trophies and Tombstones: Commemorating the Roman Soldier.” World Archaeology 35.1 (2003): 79-97. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

Leader, Ruth. “In Death Not Divided: Gender, Family, and State on Classical Athenian Grave Stelae.” American Journal of Archaeology 101.4 (1997): 683-699. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Ed. W. Terrence Gordon. Berkley, CA: Ginko Press, Inc., 2011. 406. Print.

Moore, Ruth. “American Epitaphs and Tombstones.” American Speech 1.7 (1926): 383-390. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

Shiki. “Amidst the summer grasses”. In Zen Haiku. Trans. Jonathan Clements. London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2007. 31. Print.


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