It’s creepy that the only search result for my mom is a picture of her grave.
In looking for an old photo of my mother, I decided to try the age old trick: Googling her. I wasn’t expecting any real hits. My mother died in 2002 and neither digital photography nor the internet were as ubiquitous as they are now, especially for baby boomers like my parents. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and hated having her picture taken - hence my mission in the first place - so it’s no wonder it took me almost 20 years to try to attempt to find her online.
What did I find? The first result (even before her obituary!) was a very clear, crisp picture of my mother’s gravestone from www.FindAGrave.com. Clicking through to the site, I found a full page devoted to her, including the dates of her birth and death, my father’s information and gravesite, information about me and my siblings, and even where her own parents were buried. Find a Grave seems to be a wiki for grave hobbyists. They have volunteer photo contributors, and a handful of full time staff. I suspect volunteers also sift through the public files, or they have built-in software, to help piece together the genealogical information that I found there. It was pretty impressive.
Intellectual curiosity aside, I won’t lie, my first reaction to this Google search was a combination of mortification, terror, and sadness. Was this really the main way the internet remembered my mother? Was this her online legacy? And what could I even do about it? Wikipedia has “notability requirements,” which means that even if you do create a Wiki page for a deceased loved one, administrators may ultimately take it down. Of course, you can create more expansive obituaries, and write about your loved one in blogs. But I’m not sure of any way to “curate” a loved one’s online presence, without some serious SEO skills. Especially if they had a limited public life.
My rational self tells me that it doesn’t matter. That my parents were private people and their lack of online presence fitting. The people who really knew and loved my mom are the ones who bring her to life, telling stories that remind me and my children of how colorful, loving, and creative she was. How her booming laugh cut through polite conversation in the best of ways. These are things that the internet has a hard time communicating, no matter who it is. But it worries me when I think about my future grandchildren and what they’ll remember about her. And what if they Google me one day? As more and more things move online, I hope we will soon have better ways to pass down what matters most. We’re more than our final death marker.