Cell Phones In The Hereafter

cell phone over coffins
The British, it's reported, send more than 50 million text messages a day over their mobile phones.

Now a professor of English literature at University College, London, has given their thumbs something serious to write about. He's approved translations of some great works of literature, for transmission by cell-phone texting.

Hamlet's soliloquy, for instance, becomes:


The compressed classics, it's claimed, may serve education by helping students remember key quotes or plot elements.

But shrunken Shakespeare is also another indication of how thoroughly integrated into modern life the mobile phone has become. And now that it's such a routine part of modern life, it's encroaching on the afterlife.

When the British charity Age Concern conducted a survey recently on funeral and burial preferences, it was intended to highlight benefits of advance planning.

"Actively planning a funeral," said Age Concern's Michael Abrey-Bugg, means people can "rest assured that in the event of their death the financial and organizational burden will be relieved from their loved ones." Moreover, the organization — which happens to sell a pay-before-you-go funeral plan — said money could be saved by the dead who planned ahead. As Abrey-Bugg explained, "the cost will be frozen at today's prices."

That message, though, was buried in Age Concern's press release — and ignored in newspaper stories it generated. What caught editors' eyes were the survey's findings on what people would like to leave with, or "how they wish to be accompanied to the grave or crematorium."

For most, it's a photo of a loved one, or a memento of a family pet; for some, a piece of jewelry or sports gear. For a tiny fraction of Britons, the survey found, it's a mobile phone. But elsewhere that's actually becoming a trend.

"Voice From The Grave is Ireland's Latest Fad," headlined a report from Dublin in The Independent. The newspaper quoted one funeral director who said people who "live their lives by their mobiles" want to die with them, too. Others, he said, "may be terrified they'll wake up in the coffin, so they take along a mobile to ring for help to get them out."

In "Stiff — The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," Mary Roach points out this isn't just a modern anxiety. In the 1800s, she writes, some "well-to-do deceased" would have strings attached to their fingers, and linked to a bell — which attendants were paid to monitor for a time. Roach reports this might have been the origin of the saying "saved by the bell." Which, of course, no one was.

Silence, it turns out, is also part of the protocol of the "bury me with my mobile" fad. Families of the deceased are told to make sure the phone has been turned off, or switched to "silent" or "vibrate" mode for incoming calls. "Obviously," explained one funeral director, "you don't want a phone ringing inside a coffin during a funeral," though surely some bereaved must have considered what ring tone would be appropriate for the event. Perhaps something by the Grateful Dead?

Ireland's Sunday Tribune mourned the trend, complaining that the country's "love affair with the mobile phone has reached a new level," that is, six feet under. But the paper points out this is a phenomenon with historic roots, "as Viking warriors used to be buried with their weapons, and ancient Egyptians were buried with food, drink and all their earthly riches."

True enough. But they didn't have the comfort of the young man killed in a car crash, buried with his mobile phone at his side — according to his family — so that friends could text him farewell messages. A German inventor has reportedly taken that idea a step further. He's developed what's described as a one-way phone and loudspeaker device designed to be buried near a coffin, and which is supposed to be able to broadcast voice messages for up to a year.

Someone ought to put him together with the engineers at Britain's Warwick University, who've developed a partly biodegradable mobile phone implanted with sunflower seeds. The idea is that when the phone's no longer wanted, it can be buried in the garden, where it will slowly decompose — and bloom.

By Richard Roth