Anchorage cemetery expanding use of interactive QR codes

Along the 600-foot wall at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, cremated remains are stored in niches and marked by names inscribed on granite.

A small bronze emblem might also appear near the person's name, as well as flowers or a photograph. But the closely aligned niches of the cemetery's columbarium wall offer limited space for extensive epitaphs or memorials.

"There's no story to tell," said Rob Jones, the director of the cemetery. "It's just the name and dates and little emblems."

And the cemetery is trying to change that -- with the help of technology. Standing next to the wall on a recent morning, Jones held up a small black-and-white square known as a quick-response code, or QR code.

Scanning the QR code with a smartphone app launched a website to which a family can upload a biography and obituary. The site also links to a guest book and even photos of the deceased person.

When affixed beneath a niche or on the edge of a traditional grave marker, the QR code offers both instant access to more information about the person whose remains are stored in the wall, and a way for the family to memorialize their loved one beyond the confines of the physical marker.

QR codes are already an option for traditional tombstones but Jones is seeking to expand their use to the columbarium wall, which was dedicated in 2003 and can hold about 9,000 urns. He has the unanimous support of the cemetery's board of directors. But because the wall is owned by the municipality, Jones also needs the approval of the Anchorage Assembly, which is expected to vote on the proposal at its meeting Tuesday night.

If he gets the go-ahead, Jones said, he plans start telling families about the option right away. The cemetery also would mail letters to the roughly 600 families whose loved ones' remains are already contained in the wall.

The QR code service costs $150, Jones said. He sees the codes as working almost like Facebook, just for the afterlife. Families have complete editorial control and could even include videos or links to causes their loved one supported.

While QR codes have been available for traditional graves for several years, Jones said the idea has been slow to catch on. In fact, he said, only one stone in the Anchorage cemetery bears a QR code, a flat marker in the southern quadrant of the property.

Part of that reluctance may be generational, Jones said. He said he expects the idea of QR codes on tombstones to gain traction as the younger, more digitally savvy generations age.

The concept splashed onto the scene in 2011, when Quiring Monuments began offering QR codes. The Seattle-based company employs about 65 people and sells more than 10,000 monuments a year, many of them veterans' markers, said the owner, David Quiring. The company includes codes at no extra cost with the purchase of an individual marker or monument.

But these days, only a handful -- perhaps one out of every 100 -- include a request for a QR code, Quiring said.

"The point is, nobody knows about it," Quiring said, adding that Anchorage is "leading the way" in its efforts to place QR codes on the columbarium wall.

Quiring said some cemeteries, steeped in tradition, have resisted the QR codes. The most prominent example may be Arlington National Cemetery, which has yet to lift a policy banning QR codes.

Jones has also encountered concerns among other monument makers that the QR codes won't work in Alaska's climate. He disagreed, saying weather shouldn't be a factor. (QR codes themselves are images and contain no electronic components.)

Meanwhile, he's envisioning even broader possibilities for the technology in a place steeped in history. Perhaps a QR code could be placed near the whale jawbones, telling the story of the Point Hope burial custom and the woman whose grave the bones mark. Or near the cemetery's leaf linden tree to give more information about the tree, said to be the largest in the state. Or by the grave of Alaska statesman Wally Hickel, telling visitors how Hickel was famously buried standing up.

"It's as limitless as the Internet," Jones said.