PRIME TIME offers way to remember departed loved ones

By Jeannie Kever

New York Times News Service

HOUSTON -- There was little gentle about the death of Marion Balog. She was in the hospital, surrounded by love but also by chilly technology as she fought the complications of diabetes.

To her four sons, she was a remarkable woman. But talking with friends, visiting the cemetery -- none of the traditional steps of grief had rekindled the joy they associated with her life.

They found that on the Internet.

ADVERTISEMENT is filled with short biographies recounting the accomplishments of everyday people and the memories of those who loved them. Even strangers write in, moved by these tales of people who were famous only to their families and friends.

"It was very healing," says David Balog, whose story about his mother is on the site. "It was just such a positive way of remembering her life, as opposed to the end, which was not very pleasant.

"It served its purpose more than I expected."

The Web site is a virtual community of people who celebrate life even as they mourn death.

"It's such a weird thing, death," says Virginia Johnson, who wrote about her brother, John Christopher Johnson. She hoped to ease her parents' pain, but also found relief for herself and for her nine surviving brothers and sisters.

"The pain is so incredible, and you want to escape from it. But as time goes on, you become sad and you feel like they've faded because no one remembers."

Now Chris Johnson is just a mouse click away, recalled not only through the story his sister wrote about his death and his family's lives in the ensuing year -- new babies, new jobs, new cities -- but also through photos and tributes from friends and relatives.

"I have just an incredible sense of comfort in that he lives on," she says. "He's not ever going to leave. As long as the Internet exists, he will, too."

ADVERTISEMENT was established in 1998, a Chicago-based built upon a simple philosophy: "Everybody has a story," says Hayes Ferguson, the company's chief operating officer. "Just because you weren't a politician or a banker, you can still accomplish a lot."

The company's CEO and founder, Stopher Bartol, had been casting about for a business proposition when a Chicago businessman suggested a Web site where people could post life stories. Bartol thought of his own grandfather, an immigrant from Slovenia who had barely warranted a mention in the local newspaper when he died at the age of 100. is linked to the obituary pages of several dozen newspapers and offers electronic guest books for people to write condolences or post their own remembrances. It also includes more detailed biographies, called life stories, of people, written by their families or friends, with attached guest books.

The biographies cost $195 and stay online permanently, along with the guest books. The guest books that accompany newspaper obituaries remain online for 30 days; for $49, they remain permanently.

Ferguson says there are thousands of biographies permanently on the site, with several hundred added every week. The site records about 1 million visits a month, viewing close to 5.5 million pages a month, she says.

Many people discover the electronic guest books through the death notices posted on newspaper Web sites.

The Web site began offering the guest books about two years ago as a way for people who didn't live nearby to express their sympathy, Ferguson says. But the electronic files have morphed into an open-ended forum for people to grieve, console and celebrate.

"You often wind up with much richer information about people than you have in the biography," she says. "You all (of a) sudden have this very nice, very complete document about people's lives. You hear from families that they learned things about their loved one that they didn't know."

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