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Austrian gravesites get digital twist

By Michael Shields

VIENNA (Reuters) - The fabled Viennese fondness for fine funerals and "a schoene Leich" - a beautiful corpse - is about to get a modern twist.

Digital technology is about to give Austrian gravestones the potential to speak across time by showing pictures and biographies of the people buried below.

All you need is a smartphone equipped with a scanner to read the so-called "quick response" (QR) codes, the square of squiggles already widely used in advertising campaigns to unlock a trove of information for the curious.

The first QR codes will start appearing on graves in Austria within weeks, said Joerg Bauer, project leader for Austrian bereavement company Aspetos, who has been working on the QR project for five years.

Bauer said cemetery visitors could even view videos if connection speeds were high enough, although he frowned on the prospect of disturbing others with loud music.

"Most mobile phones have a radio function that works only when the earbuds are in. If we do it this way we don't disturb the peace of the dead and people can still hear music by the grave without disturbing those nearby," he said.

The codes - first developed in Japan to track car parts in the 1990s - may eventually link music fans with the lives of legendary composers like Beethoven and Mozart enshrined at Vienna's central cemetery, he said, although local officials say there are no immediate plans for this.

QR codes may have got their start in car manufacturing, advertising and marketing, but also lend themselves to supporting grief-stricken families who want the memories of loved ones to go on, he said.

"Every person can leave behind their traces, not just the rich and famous. Everyone has something to say and to leave behind and they want to do this, but where?"

New uses for QR codes are increasingly being explored as smartphones become mainstream. For example, last year the Royal Dutch Mint issued the world's first official coin with a QR code to celebrate its centenary.

The deployment of QR codes on gravestones has taken off more slowly, perhaps due to privacy concerns of grieving families, but has gained momentum in Japan and is also being experimented with in the United States, Britain, Australia and Germany.

One funeral company in the southern English town of Poole, for instance, is already offering to add QR codes to headstones.

"It's one way to make memories live in the digital world," says Thomas Husson, principal consumer product strategy analyst at IT research firm Forrester. "It highlights the potential of this technology to bridge the offline and online worlds."

Aspetos is working with stonemasons now to test technology that lets QR codes get sandblasted onto gravestones directly at cemeteries at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods of chiseling text or images onto memorials.

Exact costs were still under discussion, he said, but would be low enough to make the technology available to all. Elsewhere, QR graves cost a few hundred dollars on top of the price of the headstone, plus charges for hosting website data.

People who choose burial at sea or in forest cemeteries with no headstones could set up the codes in communal mourning centers, leaving for posterity the milestones of their lives.

Bauer said clients can even have online eulogies recorded by professionals chosen from a network of experts.

"I can say for instance I want a Buddhist monk at a Russian orthodox funeral. That is possible."

The idea still faces some technical hurdles. How to store data for posterity remains a challenge - a family could lose rights to a web domain if it fails to keep up rental payments - and data protection laws in Europe can pose an obstacle.

But he said QR codes still had huge potential.

"The technology is by far not yet at the end. It's sensible use is just at the beginning," he said.

Timothy Vincent, from Wetter in Germany's western Ruhr region, said he was one of two German masons he knew of who are using the QR technology to customize gravestones.

He said the technology represented an opportunity to revisit the ancient idea that stones could "speak" as silent witnesses to the past.

"We have the opportunity to return to the tradition of making speaking stones because we can convey entirely different content via QR codes. That is the beauty of it," he said.

"We are fetching virtuality into reality, and where else does that happen?"

Vincent, who said he intended to put a QR code on his own grave, said the technology had a bright future.

"Maybe it is a bit off-putting for our generation but succeeding generations won't have any inhibitions about it. They live with technical innovation, QR codes, apps, Facebook and the internet," he said.

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