Making a Website to Give Death New Life
Beginning of The End
Accidentally apt one-liners. Famous last words. The in-the-moment asides that end with “‥that ought to be on my tombstone.” We all have moments where we blurt out pithy remarks that could just as easily sum up our whole lives. They end up living just in the ephemeral space of the conversation, or sometimes for a tiny bit longer on Facebook and Twitter. Then they’re gone. So in 2014, following a rapid-fire text exchange during which Ksenya messaged “sitting alone in a dark room, laughing audibly” and discovered it could double as a fitting elegy, the concept for Epitaph.RIP was born. The site was simple: just a place for people to post the words they wanted to be remembered by — the first place they’d go to write the last thing they’d ever say.
Famous Last Words
Gravestones are weird. Like, really. You die; and then, while grieving and trying to figure out who gets your beloved cookie jar collection, your loved ones are forced to try to figure out 10 words — maybe more, if you were smart enough to set aside money for a big piece of marble — that sum up your impact on the world. It’s as depressing as it is ludicrous. This is likely why so many inscriptions list just bare biographical details, with an occasional phrase that reads as if it came with the frame. Likely, because it did — doing research for this site we even found an engraver’s catalog that suggested “Dance on” — as a wise choice. Some add a “beloved daughter” or “caring father” for good measure; and for that we should be grateful, if anyone but friends or family wrote these inscriptions they might read “decent employee”, “four stars, would recommend”, or “rarely late on rent”. But usually the extent of the customization is still limited to a rather impersonal words.
Epitaph.RIP’s purpose lies in making sure you don’t get buried under your birthday and a quote from Lord Byron you never read. It lets you record the words you’d want on your headstone (or memorial or plaque or urn, etc.). The people who know and care about you can see it; they’ll know your wishes if anything should befall you. The goal is to have a place to immediately save the sentences — wry, evocative, earnest — that encompass you. Activist Leonard Matlovich’s tombstone poignantly says “Never Again/Never Forget” along with “A Gay Vietnam War Veteran”. “I’ve finally stopped getting dumber” sums up mathematician Paul Erdős’ existence. The ashes of writer Dorothy Parker are under a plaque that, at the humorist’s request, reads “Excuse my dust”. Lots of writers and artists have tombstones emblazoned with their own work, reminders that they died as they lived. Many of the rest of us aren’t so lucky, but we should be.
If your epitaph becomes something you plan for, it can be brilliant, even cathartic — the kind of phrase that actually brings solace when people come to mourn. And in the age of social media, these quick summations of our lives are already everywhere. Twitter, thanks to its forced brevity, has probably taught people how to think like gravestone writers more than any other medium. But tweets, Facebook posts, and the scattered quick asides that litter the internet as our digital footprints, they get buried fast by the the next post or banal retweet. With Epitaph.RIP, everyone can keep their watchword in a single place — one that captures both how they want to be remembered and how they want to live. Think of it like a morbid motivational poster, the Quote of the Day of the Dead.
But it’s not just about being able to rest assured your tombstone won’t be a cliché. We’ve been training ourselves to use technology to keep track of our lives — and livelihood — for years now. Screens dim to remind us to go to sleep. Watches track our steps. The entire Quantified Self movement was built on using gadgets to keep us in line. Epitaph.RIP recalibrates from sensors and data-for-the-sake-of-data to refocus you on your personal mantra. Knowing what your tombstone would say if you died tomorrow can serve as a reminder of your priorities today.
If an epitaph is a living document, it can become a personal lighthouse; a way of remembering what you value and honing in on your primary focus. Being guided by your last words is, then, a way to always return to center. Your epitaph is a reminder of what you want your life to mean. Getting a speeding ticket or screwing up at work sucks, and it can ruin your day — maybe even your week. But will it be what you ultimately return to on your deathbed? No. Keeping a record of your core purpose ensures you’re always conscious of doing things to fulfill it.
Last Train to Glory
Epitaph.RIP lets you control what that final status update will be. You can update it whenever you want, but — as in life — you only get one. It’s the about.me of death. A dance macabre for the internet. And, as with social networks, the site simultaneously shows our uniqueness and similarities — maybe even helps us connect over our morbid fascinations. Do we all want to be remembered in a certain way? Yes, of course. But will how we express that be the same? Never. Some people are funny. Some cynical. Some romantics. One person wants to be known for success in business; another wants to be known as the BBQ Queen of West Virginia. A third person, if humanity is truly brilliant and good, will be able to be known as both. Epitaph.RIP isn’t here to create that memory — it’s just here to remember it well.
PROJECT CREDITS, in order of appearance: Ksenya Samarskaya (concept, design, words), Eric Jacobsen (development), Angela Watercutter (words, resuscitation). If you’re interested in expanding on this project and taking it to the next level, please get in touch.