QR Codes for the Dead

Graveyards are becoming smart spaces, but will today's technology last for eternity?
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The QR code’s history is intrinsically tied to a quest for efficiency, thus mirroring the barcode’s trajectory. Drexel graduate students Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver patented the barcode in 1952, but their invention wasn’t fully realized until the 1960s, with the birth of the KarTrak system, implemented by the railroad industry to track the contents of individual railcars. Barcodes were then commercially popularized with the birth of the Unique Product Code, or UPC, in the 1970s as a way of automating cashiers’ labor, ostensibly saving time while preventing the carpel tunnel-inducing repetitive motions of manually entering numbers. But barcodes can only contain roughly twenty alphanumeric characters, thus limiting their applications. In 1994, a Japanese subsidiary of Toyota called Denso Wave released the “quick response” or QR code, allowing more information to become embedded into objects. Unlike the PDF417 and other earlier 2D barcodes, the QR code decodes information using image sensors rather than by utilizing a linear scan. Their ability to be read by smartphones means that QR codes are now being used in numerous ways, sometimes tied to long-standing physical structures. Although QR codes are primarily used to facilitate short-term commercial interactions, now they are being integrated into places associated with posterity.

A variety of QR Codes, from DENSO Wave's
history of the technology (DENSO Wave)

While they were originally created for use in the Japanese auto industry, in order to track motor vehicles during the manufacturing process, QR codes are now embedded in everything from wedding invitations to subway billboards. Since 2010, smartphones have had the ability to read QR codes, making them popular in many industries. QR codes have especially caught on in advertising, where corporations use them to lure consumers to their websites, which in turn allows those companies to learn more about shoppers by grabbing their browsing histories and other digital crumbs. Rather than merely tracking objects that move through market circulation and exchange or linking individuals to websites through short-lived advertisements, QR codes can track and map networks of social relationships over time while also linking users to rich content. Their ability to trace relationships, connecting various information points about individuals and their networks, has raised privacy and security concerns, particularly as malevolent QR codes spread malware. But the possibility of QR codes’ obsolescence, as well as the potential ephemerality of the digital connections they produce, have not enjoyed sufficient discussion.

Flickr/Michael Kappel

QR codes sometimes appear in unlikely places, on everyday objects rather than on advertisements or billboards. So common are these weird encounters, a Tumblr dedicated to ill-conceived QR code embedded things has emerged, with photographs of QR codes in the wild—on teabags, the backs of Subway employees’ T-shirts, and even on bananas. When the advertising campaign ends or a company nosedives and disappears, the QR code itself may endure on these materials. If they are placed on long-standing structures or tangible objects, the QR code becomes a part of the architecture. What does it mean to use QR codes as points of connection for the longue durée? What happens to digital objects after they lose their smartness?

A QR code-emblazoned pet memorial (Forever Headstone)

An example of QR codes on headstones may offer an entry point to begin thinking through these questions. Gravestone monuments, after all, are built of sturdy matter such as granite, fieldstone, and marble—materials imagined to last well into the future. Given the proliferation of memorialization websites and the use of social networking profiles as mourning spaces, it may come as no surprise that QR codes now appear on headstones, linking graveyard visitors to online tributes to the dead. The frenzy of connectivity fomented by the Web 2.0 ethos has apparently led to a market for interactive, digitally connected graveyards.

Living Headstones, a subsidiary of the Seattle-based gravestone and monument company called Quiring, claims their “memorial blends the timeless tradition of granite headstones with the newest technology available. We provide an interactive ‘living’ memorial that is a legacy for future generations.” According to Living Headstones, families now often live in geographically disparate areas, meaning that frequently visiting gravesites is not a possibility. QR codes on headstones link a particular gravesite in one geographic location to a virtual public space that can be accessed from anywhere, allowing graveyard visitors and those from afar to link to the same memorial website while inducing a sense of shared experience. While Living Headstones serve as digital spaces for photographs, comments, obituary articles, genealogical information, and links to social networking websites, they are also situated in stone. The granite headstone, explicitly linking the body of the deceased to a physical geographical space in a graveyard, belies the networked space of the memorial website. Today, multiple companies provide QR codes that attach to physical headstones and link family members and friends, but also random graveyard visitors, to memorial websites or other information about the deceased. Children can now learn all about the grandfather they never met while visiting his gravesite. In fifty or even one hundred years, so the idea goes, people will be able to scan QR codes with their devices and learn more about the people buried in a cemetery.

Shrine with QR code (Ishinokoe)

Smart graveyards have long been considered important practical and historical tools; knowing the exact coordinates of each burial plot in a vast cemetery is no easy feat. Much in the way that Geographic Information System (GIS) promised digitally accessible archaeological and historical sites (graveyards among them), so now QR codes become a means of organizing and archiving information. GIS provides spatial analysis of mortuary spaces, both ancient and contemporary, allowing users to map and analyze burial plots, genealogical information, and other features. Now QR codes can become part of this mapping process as well. In La Paz, a Jewish cemetery in Uruguay, QR codes on every headstone link visitors to information about specific graves. Thanks to the codes, every tombstone’s location is known and the curious can even view the cemetery remotely. QR codes on headstones promise access to in-depth personal details about the buried person instead of just generating metadata.

Despite the commercial origins of both the QR code and the barcode, it is difficult to imagine family members placing barcodes on gravesites, essentially marking their dead loved ones as commodities or conjuring images of barcode forehead tattoos from dystopian fantasy novels. QR codes facilitate the sharing of information, but they have managed to distance themselves from a necessary connection to commercial activities. Nevertheless, QR codes only become recognizable symbols thanks to their successful commercial implementation. For this reason, some may find their visible presence in graveyards discomfiting or disrespectful. As a result of such concerns, Arlington National Cemetery debated and ultimately decided against incorporating QR codes as means of linking gravestones to historical information about the dead.

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Tamara Kneese is a doctoral candidate in media, culture, and communication at New York University.

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