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QR Codes:A Modern Approach to an Ancient Custom of Memorializing Loved Ones

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In his 30 years working as a busy first responder in Los Angeles, David Gastelum saw plenty of death firsthand. But what stuck with him was the photos he’d see when entering someone’s home.

“I started to wonder, what happens to all these photos, these memories, this person’s life, everything they did. The trick-or-treating, the Christmases, the working hard to get that one Christmas present for their kid. There’s a story with every photo and they end up in a box to be forgotten about. And this realization played out over and over and it caused a deep sadness in me.”

Gastelum says this thought crystalized for him in 2017 while he was at a friend’s funeral, a man who was killed in the line of duty. He was looking at the gravestone when he saw the dash between the birth and death dates. Gastelum says he started thinking about the symbol, “It hit me then. That whole life is represented by the dash. That symbol is your whole, entire life and you just get that little dash.”

As he thought about this, he wondered, “Why can’t we make a way to get all those photos and make a slideshow so you can scan the gravestone with a QR code and see all the photos that end up in a box so that they are not lost forever. Now they are remembered. Now, here we go. That person’s life, their 'dash,’ is remembered.”

He was inspired to create a company called Dash which helps families create slideshows that are linked by a QR code. He retired last year from his work training firefighters to devote his energies full-time to the start-up. Besides headstone QR markers, the codes can be placed on programs or other locations like trees, rocks and benches to link to memorial pages. The technology can also be used for weddings, graduations, anytime someone wants an effortless way to link to a website with more information.

QR codes are not new. They were invented in 1994 in Japan where as early as 2008, they were used on headstones to link to a memorial or obituary. Like bar codes used on products, they create a quick and simple way to link a website. But adoption of QR codes had waned until the pandemic, when many restaurants started using them to link to menus to allow people to order food without touching anything but their phone. Now, most people can use their photo function to access them on a smartphone instead of having to use a QR reader app.

Mandy Benoualid of Keeper Memorials says her company was one of the first to promote QR codes for linking to memorial sites ten years ago. 

She says that she was inspired to create her company after walking through a cemetery with her dad and looking at a columbarium. They noticed among the other small mementoes placed in each niche, there was one with a CD that said “dad’s work” written in Sharpie pen. “It was just so strange to us that there was a CD, a piece of technology, in a cemetery. It is not something you see a lot. Obviously, the family cared enough to preserve that person’s story and wanted to showcase it. That was the only means of technology available that they were able to do so. That’s where the idea came from. What if you could just put a QR code and scan it and it takes you to the story of that person so you can learn about their life?” she explained. 

“Every person in a cemetery has a story. The markers, unfortunately, aren’t able to shed enough light on their life,” she said.

Benoualid says people were interested and “got it” right away, but QR codes’ popularity then dropped a lot in North America after they were overused in advertising and marketing campaigns and not easy to access. Keeper stopped offering the product a few years ago. But when COVID happened, everyone started using QR codes again, she says. “Now we are constantly being approached about it and we are starting up production again after seven years.”

In research by Keeper, 85 percent of families who were asked about how they commemorated a loved one said they did so with stories and photos, so the popularity of QR codes on markers is just an extension of that practice. “We used to share photos by looking at a photo album. Now, we share photos and memories by texting them or looking at photos on social media. Even if you think about Victorians, they would photograph their deceased children because that would be the only time they could have a photo to remember them. So, this is not anything new, it is just the way that we communicate nowadays and the way we share information is just a little different,” she said.

Dash founder Gastelum and Keeper’s Benoualid both agree that though the technology is relatively new, the process of remembering our ancestors through pictures and stories is ancient. “Ancient Egyptians, Native Americans, Indigenous people throughout the world, every culture has used the technology available to them to preserve their story, not just for their contemporaries, but to protect their legacies. The motivation has always been there since the dawn of human history, we’re just doing it with the technology available to us today,” Gastelum said.

As the founder of a tech company, Benoualid is well-aware of the fickleness of tech trends and isn’t sure how long this new surge in the use of QR codes will last. “It’s interesting. My honest opinion is that it is a trend. It is a lovely trend. I don’t think it’s harmful at all. Unfortunately, QR codes and our phones may change. We may not have phones anymore. I just don’t know about the longevity of it ... But I think it is still a beautiful thing at this time and if it is a removable plaque that won’t damage a stone, I don’t see anything wrong about it.”

QR Codes