We take them with us to the dinner table, the bedroom, even the bathroom stall. But in recent years, some of us have started taking our beloved cell phones someplace really startling: the grave.
“It seems that everyone under 40 who dies takes their cell phone with them,” says Noelle Potvin, family service counselor for Hollywood Forever, a funeral home and cemetery in Hollywood, Calif. “It’s a trend with BlackBerrys, too. We even had one guy who was buried with his Game Boy.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests being buried with a favorite tech device is on the upswing. The Future Laboratory, a London-based think tank, has commented on the behavior, noting it in places like the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa. But experts are seeing it happen in the United States as well.
Ed Defort, publisher and editorial director for American Funeral Director magazine, says it's a definite trend.
“I’ve even heard of cases where people are being buried with their iPod. Or one guy who was prepared for his viewing with his Bluetooth (headset) in his ear.”
But it’s the cell phone, in particular, that seems to be the burial gadget of choice.
While statistics on cell phone burials don’t exist, funeral professionals agree it’s a fairly common occurrence — at least among the tech-savvy and the young — and some believe we’re only seeing the tip of the wired-to-the-end trend.
“It really started happening within the last five or six years,” says Frank Perman, owner and funeral director of Frank R. Perman Funeral Home, Inc. of Pittsburgh, Pa. “But I expect it to grow exponentially, especially with the price of technology getting so low. It’s not that big of a deal to bury somebody’s cell phone.”
Why, exactly, are people going to the grave with their gadgets? Experts say there are a number of reasons.
Some do it for the same reason people have always tucked mementos into a casket (or tomb, as in the case of King Tut). People want to surround themselves (or their loved ones) with the things they hold dear, whether that’s their cell phone and headset or some family photos, a fishing rod, a piece of treasured jewelry.
“A lot of people say the phone represents the person, that it is part of their legacy,” says Potvin of Hollywood Forever. “It’s an extension of them, like their class ring.”
Comfort for the living
Others do it as a way to provide comfort — both to themselves and the departed.
“I’ve seen family members place iPod earphones on the decedent and play songs as the casket closed,” says Pam Vetter, a Los Angeles funeral planner who helps create more personalized services for families.
“It’s comforting to the family to think mom’s playing her iPod or dad’s still got the cell phone that was attached to his ear all the time,” she said. “It’s comforting to think those things are still with them.”
The notion of staying connected also seems to play into being buried with one’s mobile.
“I’ve seen people leave cell phones on and tell me they’re going to call their loved one later,” says Vetter. “Not that anyone will answer, but they want to have that connection. I’m sure the family gathers around the phone when they call. They feel connected with that person because it’s their phone, but at the same time it helps them realize that a death has occurred.”
When Manhattan criminal defense attorney John Jacobs died in 2005, his wife, Marion Seltzer, not only buried him with his phone and a fully charged battery, she continues to pay the monthly phone bill and even calls him on occasion (since the battery’s now dead, the calls immediately go into Jacobs’ voicemail).
She also had his cell phone number carved onto his headstone so others can call him, too, according to one television report.
Frank Perman says phone calls to the dead aren’t that uncommon.
“We had a young man die this past summer and they put his cell phone in the casket for the viewing and it rang constantly,” he says. “It was turned to silent, but you could see the phone light up so you knew people were calling. And they were leaving messages. They knew he was dead, but they were still calling.”
Ring tones have even become a sort of 21st century funeral tribute, says Defort of American Funeral Director magazine.
“Some people will call the deceased just as they’re lowering the coffin into the ground,” he says. “It’ll be prearranged and you’ll hear a faint ring. It’s like the new version of ‘Taps’ for people who are identified as being on the phone all the time.”
While funeral professionals cite many reasons why people are taking their phones with them to the grave, being “saved by the bell” should they accidentally be buried alive doesn’t appear to be one of them.
“The fear of being buried alive isn’t too prevalent in this day and age,” says Michael Regina, CEO and founder of FuneralDecisions.com.
“Obviously, back in the 1800s that was a huge fear and they actually (attached) bells to the caskets so if a person woke up they could ring the bell and let people know they weren’t dead. But today, people take phones with them because they’re a part of them.”
A survey of 100,000 people last year by the British charity Age Concern (sort of the AARP of England), seems to suggest both possibilities, though.
Of the top eight common funeral rite requests, being buried with a mobile phone came in at No. 2 (immediately after a request to be cremated with a pet’s ashes). After that, people wanted someone to “ensure they are dead,” and hold “a mirror over the face to check for signs of breathing.”
'Like a third arm'
Penny Sansevieri, a 44-year-old publicist from San Diego, Calif., says she already takes her BlackBerry with her everywhere, so taking it with her into the great beyond doesn’t seem that strange.
“My BlackBerry is like a third arm,” she says. “Why wouldn’t I be buried with it?”
Funeral professionals are only too happy to comply these days, as long as people don’t try to cremate gadgets along with anyone’s remains.
“You can’t cremate any kind of electronic device like a cell phone or hearing aid or pacemaker,” says Perman. “The battery will explode. If a family wants the cell phone with a person who’s being cremated, I’ll put it in the urn afterwards.”
As for those who want to stay wired in the afterlife but are worried about high-tech toxic waste? Sony Ericsson, Nokia and LG Electronics have all come out with cell phones that are somewhat green.