Web service sends your final farewell

Imagine receiving a new e-mail from an old friend that begins, "By the time you read this, I will have passed on."

It could happen, as a result of a new Internet service called TimelessMail.com. Through this new service (which costs $12 to $24 annually), subscribers create and store e-mail messages containing their final adieu to friends and family. After a subscriber has bought the farm, his or her messages are forwarded to the intended recipients following a verification of (US) Social Security Administration death records.

Robert Walker, TimelessMail.com's founder and chief executive officer, got the idea after both his father and a close personal friend passed away unexpectedly. The two losses forced Walker to contemplate his own mortality, he says.

Originally from Seattle, Walker, 40, now lives in Canton, Ohio, and worried that his friends in Washington state would never know if something happened to him. "Our nation is so decentralized and spread out, it's likely they'd never hear anything about it," he says. Figuring many others had the same concerns, Walker decided that e-mail is a practical way to notify far-flung loved ones of your passing.

Change Grieving

Aside from practicalities, TimelessMail.com will offer e-mail recipients comfort, Walker believes. After the deaths of his father and friend, Walker wished he could have heard from them one last time and believes others who are grieving feel the same way. What better way, then, to console loved ones than to deliver a personal message after you've shuffled off this mortal coil?

"Sure, it's a jolt at first to receive an e-mail from someone who has passed away," Walker concedes. After the shock dissipates, however, Walker believes recipients are likely to cherish the departed's last words to them. "It's tough when you're surprised by someone's death, and my hope is that this service helps change the way people grieve," he says.

A recent New York Times report illustrates Walker's point. According to the Times, Linda Kostenko arrived at work in New Jersey at 9:05 a.m. on September 11, distraught from hearing about a plane crash at the World Trade Center. Her close friend Jean DePalma worked on the 100th floor of the north tower, and Kostenko, fearful of her pal's fate, frantically checked her in-box for a message from DePalma, a frequent e-mail correspondent.

DePalma had e-mailed Kostenko a poem at 8:31 a.m.--just 14 minutes before the American Airlines flight crashed into the tower. The last line said, 'Life is not a race but a journey to be savored each step of the way.'

As it turned out, DePalma was listed among the missing, but her e-mail is still in Kostenko's in-box, where it will stay indefinitely. "It is very sacred to me," Kostenko told the Times.

TimelessMail.com's November debut, just two months after the terrorist attacks, has caused some critics to label Walker an opportunist (or worse). But the service had been in the planning stages for months before 9/11, Walker says.

Initial response to the service has been "fantastic," Walker says, with 1.9 million hits from 28,000 unique visitors through the end of last year. So far, however, only three dozen people have subscribed, a number Walker admits is "surprisingly low."

Security Stressed

TimelessMail.com relies on Social Security death records to trigger release of the e-mail messages, and Walker believes many potential subscribers balk at giving an Internet company their Social Security number. However, that is the only widely trusted method of verifying death records, he explains.

TimelessMail.com subscribes to a verification service called Veris, which tracks retired Social Security numbers--a procedure that occurs only when a number's owner dies. Veris compiles lists from the Social Security Administration, and sends the file monthly to TimelessMail.com. There, the file is compared against the site's subscription records. If there's a match, Walker says he will personally verify that the subscriber is deceased (as opposed to relying entirely on automation) before distributing the messages according to the subscriber's directions.

Walker hopes that over time, people will grow more comfortable with providing their number to TimelessMail.com, since it helps ensure their wishes will be carried out appropriately.

All data sent to TimelessMail.com, including message content and Social Security numbers, is protected with VeriSign encryption, Walker says. The data is stored on one of TimelessMail.com's ISP servers, copied to a second server, and backed up daily on tape.

As for concerns that TimelessMail.com might become another dot-bomb, Walker says his current monthly operating costs are only $100 and he has kept his day job, as director of information systems at Walsh University. Regardless, TimelessMail.com wasn't conceived as a big moneymaker. Walker sees it as a way to help people at a difficult time.

"If it breaks even in a couple of years and is self-sustaining, I'm happy," he adds.

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James A. Martin

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