Finally, You Can Have a QR Code on Your Headstone

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Death may be permanent, but headstones are always changing.

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benchilada/Flickr

Headstones are the very mark of solidity; their stone says longevity, durability, time immemorial.

That is, unless you paste a QR code sticker onto one of them, which is newly possible thanks to at least one Seattle company. Buried at the end of Business Week's QR-code takedown, we find the following nugget:

David Quiring, the Seattle owner of a headstone shop, sells a $75 service that lets families set up websites devoted to their dearly departed. Those can be accessed by scanning QR-code stickers on tombstones. He ends up having to explain what a QR code is to every customer, and less than 30 percent of them buy the sticker, he says. "I've been trying to continue the move forward by actually bringing monuments into the 21st century," he says. "Nobody knows this technology is out there."

While you may snicker at this idea, headstone technology development has not been static. Gravstones have changed remarkably over the last 100 years, as we described in an article last year. The modern headstone usually comes from a globalized trade network that brings Brazilian, Indian, and Chinese stone to the United States. The rocks are loaded onto container ships like plastic toys or televisions. The letters you see on them are often carved by lasers, which succeeded the pneumatic chisel, which itself had replaced handcarving.

But there is one important way in which the QR code differs from the gravestone technologies that came before it. Whereas all previous technologies required only the eyes and a basic sense of literacy, a QR code is not legible without a third-party device. It is worth noting, however, that they do have a key predecessor in the symbols, a kind of afterlife code, that members of fraternal organizations often placed on tombstones around the turn of the last century. These symbols -- an elk, two shepherds crooks crossing -- would have been easily recognizable at the time they were affixed on the headstones, but now they are as mysterious as the QR code will probably be to our descendents.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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