High-tech headstones speak from beyond the grave

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2012 - 9:51 PM

They use QR codes to link to photos and videos of the dearly departed.

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Norm Taple showed an example of a QR code at his grandfather’s gravesite in Emet Cemetery in Richfield.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Karen Shragg didn't go with traditional granite for her grandmother's headstone.

She went high-tech.

The marker features a QR code that allows visitors to a Richfield cemetery to read her grandmother's biography and view photographs of her, as well.

"This is just fantastic,'' Shragg said. "It's revolutionary."

The idea of sticking a QR code onto a headstone is the brainchild of a Twin Cities-based outfit determined to drag the industry into the 21st century.

More than just a marketing gambit aimed at a techno-obsessed society, it's an opportunity to document family stories before they fade away, said Norm Taple, president of Katzman Monument Co., which launched the QR codes in 2011. His company is believed to be one of four in the nation offering the QR code service.

"It's a chance for future generations to make a connection with a loved one," Taple said. "There's no emotional connection when all you can look at is a headstone, probably a dirty headstone, at that. We've got people telling their own stories, speaking directly to future generations."

The QR code allows people with smartphones to access a website paying tribute to the dearly departed. Cemetery visitors can read the deceased's biography, study their family tree, look at pictures or even watch videos of them talking about their lives.

The practice grew out of the surging popularity of memorial videos -- sometimes called legacy or end-of-life-videos -- in which people tape messages to be played at their funerals. Taple wondered why videos should be limited to funerals.

Thus was born the "interactive memorial." It's accessed via the QR code, which is on a 1 1/2-inch-square sticker similar to the renewal tabs used on license plates that can be attached anywhere on the tombstone. It's free with the purchase of a headstone from Katzman Monument, or you can add it to an existing tombstone for $150.

"As long as a cemetery is in an area with cellphone coverage -- which these days is just about everywhere -- it will work," he said.

Taple's company has been around for a little more than a year. Or a little over 77 years, depending on how you count.

It was started by Taple's grandfather, Jack Katzman, who opened shop at the corner of 19th Street and Nicollet Avenue in 1935. In 1981, with no one in the family interested in taking over the business, he closed it. Taple, his brother, Loren, and a longtime family friend, Michael Gregerson, decided to "reconstitute" the company, but in a technology-centric mode.

Instead of a brick-and-mortar showroom -- which none of them could staff because they all have full-time jobs -- they set up shop as an online business. Customers who log on to their website, katzmanmonument.com, can do everything electronically, including uploading photographs or other artwork to be etched into the granite.

"There are still companies where, when you walk in, there's a guy with a pencil and pad of sketch paper," he said. "This is an industry that has been missing the boat as far as the rest of the world goes."

Depending on how computer-savvy you are or how complex you want to make the memorial, you can do it yourself or arrange for the monument company to do it for you, either piecemeal or in its entirety. There are forms in which you can type biographies and fill in family trees. If you need help, prices range from $1 a piece to scan nondigital photos, to $45 to convert a VHS tape to digital format, to $215 to produce a 30-photo montage or $550 to shoot a simple video.

You can change the memorial at any time. "Anybody with a smartphone can access it and see it," Taple said, "but only one person has the log-in code that enables them to edit it."

Shragg, who is director of Wood Lake Nature Center and author of the book "Grieving Outside the Box" in which she interviewed people who dealt with grief in unusual ways, said it was insightful to work on her grandmother's QR memorial.

"I wish I had known about them [QR memorials] before I wrote the book," she said. "Any memorial -- like the benches we dedicate [at Wood Lake] -- is a way of calling attention to a person who was important in your life but is no longer here. But the QR code took it to a new level. It was a way to show people who my grandmother was."

The Rev. Alan Naumann, who also is a videographer, often helps people in hospice record a farewell message. He was doing that with a man in Rochester recently when he mentioned the QR code memorial.

"As we were getting done, I asked him one last question: If you could say something to the people who come to look at your headstone, what would you tell them?" Naumann said. The man said he'd advise his heirs to focus on the things that are important in life. "So then I told him that we can make that happen, and he got so excited about the fact that his life could still have an impact after he was gone.

"Legacy isn't just about money," Naumann continued. "The most important legacy we can leave behind are the lessons we learned and the values that steered our life. And to be able to do that in your own voice is very powerful."

Most cemeteries have embraced the idea. The only resistance Taple has encountered has come from Fort Snelling National Cemetery, which is subject to policies set on a national level. The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains a list of emblems that have been approved for inclusion on grave markers; QR codes aren't on it.

"It's all about uniformity," Taple said. "They don't want a marker to be unique. Well, these were your loved ones, and they were unique in many ways."

He's hoping that the VA will change its policies once it realizes the codes' potential, which he's convinced is almost limitless. His company is working with the creators of a veterans' memorial where visitors will be able to access the personal stories of 600 war dead.

"We're going to reach out to all 600 families," he said. "It's a wonderful opportunity. It's so much better than just a name etched into a monument."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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