Lives of dead come alive via high-tech tombstones

The concept of barcodes on tombstones and interactivity at the cemetery was considered too far-fetched when Glenn Toothman first travelled to funeral industry conferences 10 years ago.

The concept of barcodes on tombstones and interactivity at the cemetery was considered too far-fetched when Glenn Toothman first travelled to funeral industry conferences 10 years ago.

“Nothing in the death-care business happens too quickly,” he said.

After years of waiting, technological developments have finally allowed Toothman to get to a point of “rebirth” for his Waynesburg, Pa., company, the Memory Medallion.

The Memory Medallion story began one Sunday evening in 1999, when Toothman, then the district attorney for Greene County, was visited by his father, a retired judge.

“I spent the day in the cemeteries,” the judge told his son. “And I hate to think that life comes down to this dash” between the birth and death dates on a tombstone.

You’re the problem-solver of this family, he told his son, and you need to think of a better way to honor the deceased.

Toothman has always been a “frustrated electronic engineer,” and he knew the answer had a technological solution — replace the dash with a high-tech dot that can direct cell phones to websites and video about the deceased.

A standard Memory Medallion remembrance package costs US$225 and includes a barcode medallion for the gravesite, a website of eight photos and 1,000-word story and a printed biography. Family members also can record a video about the deceased that plays on smart phones that scan the barcode, called a QR code.

QR codes have become hot tools for advertisers hoping to hook young shoppers with promotional deals. Japanese companies started the trend of putting them on tombstones.

Toothman said his board of directors doesn’t like him to tell this next part, but what’s true is true: The solution came to him in a dream.

Surveying Green Mount Cemetery on a recent morning, Toothman recounted the dream with tears in his eyes. He saw himself walking through a cemetery holding a device that touched the tombstones and displayed photos of his family.

He had his first prototype after about 30 days of tinkering in the basement. His wife would find her moonlighting husband asleep in the suit he’d worn in court that day.

In 2001, the company applied for funding from Innovation Works, a nonprofit venture capital firm that provides funding for startups.

He secured a $300,000 grant.

The smart phone market has been a godsend for Memory Medallion, which previously required users to lug a laptop to the tombstone and download the information through a USB cable.

The accompanying remembrance website links to online genealogy sources and also can have customized links, such as a personal Facebook page. A fourth link was introduced recently and is available for corporate sponsorship. A certified genealogist on staff, Candice Buchanan, sets the page up for families.

The company is in talks with public memorials that honor those fallen on Sept. 11, 2001, and Memory Medallions have been used as a supplement to historical tours that stop in a cemetery.

The first year Memory Medallion saw about 50 sales. Last year the company recorded about 5,000, and Toothman expects business to grow about 200 per cent in the coming years. His staff of seven workers also will grow in scale, he said.

Toothman, who resigned as Greene County’s district attorney in 2001 to focus on the Memory Medallion, expects 2011 to be the first year he’ll make more money in the new job than he did in his old one.

The company works out of a vine-covered, Victorian home, complete with a turret and second-story wraparound porch. Clients come from near and far. Marilyn Kerr, of Waynesburg, has more than six Memory Medallions for her immediate family, but her first Medallion was for a distant cousin with no children or relatives.

“There would be no one to hear her story without it,” she said. “It’s something that lives on and on and on. When I’m not here to tell my children about them, I want them to feel more closely related to that individual,” she said.

Toothman talks about the project in evangelical, not fiscal, terms, viewing it as a chance to help his depressed community economically and his fellow man spiritually.

And industry executives say the skepticism has faded over the years.

Dave Bishop offers Memory Medallions to clients as senior executive vice president of sales at McCleskey Mausoleums of Atlanta, and the rate of purchase is about the same for clients who are planning their own gravesite or buying one for a deceased relative.

Bishop said his company does not get a cut of Medallion profits — he simply sells it because he believes in it.

“Cemeteries are the receptors of heritage,” he said. “It’s really neat, but we have to make sure it is going to last.”