Midway through his 30s, Tom Ainsworth realized he was going to die. Of course, he always knew. Death comes for all of us—those are the rules. But when his own father passed away, in 2011, and then his best friend a few years later, it suddenly hit him over the head like a cartoon anvil. One day he, too, would leave everything he loved behind. Not right away. Or, maybe right away. Who could know? He had to start preparing.
In 2014, Ainsworth created a memorial page for his dad on Skymorials, a sort of digital cemetery. “I was one of the first users ever,” Ainsworth says. Now, he’s the CEO. The company, based in Melbourne, has since rebranded as Memories; its users come there to mourn loved ones on digital memorial pages and offer condolences with things like virtual flowers. (Ainsworth wasn’t sure people would pay money for that, until he saw his kids spending egregiously on new Fortnite skins.) Memories also hosts digital “vaults” for living people to store things like precious photos, videos, and life stories, which can be shared after their passing. Kind of like Dropbox, but for the dead.
Ainsworth loves his job. Death, it seems, gives him life. He spends a lot of time thinking about how to help people grieve, and about his own legacy—he journals religiously, so he can pass down his life story to his kids when he’s gone. That got him thinking. Maybe there was a way for Memories to preserve peoples’ legacies more dimensionally. It could let people speak to their descendants directly, for years to come, maybe even generations into the future. The concept became Future Messages, Memories’ latest feature. It lets people record video messages, while they are alive, to be dispatched to loved ones after their death. Since developing Future Messages, Ainsworth regularly sends little recordings to his wife—mostly to test that the feature works, but also, you never know.
Grief is intractable, and egged on by wishful thinking. If only Dad could be here to walk me down the aisle. I wish our last conversation hadn’t been so dull. What I wouldn’t give to hear “I love you” one more time. Future Memories aims to quell some of that, by encouraging the living to imagine how they will be grieved, and then inviting them to show up after they’re dead. In a commercial for Future Messages, a boy mourns his grandpa, occasionally sending him updates on his life in a one-way text thread. Then one day, years later, Grandpa messages back. “If you’re watching this, Maxie, it’s your 18th birthday,” Grandpa says in a video recording. “I’m really proud of the fine young man you’re becoming. I’ll always be with you, mate.” The effect is heart-wrenching.
Though death is hard to control, people like Ainsworth are determined to create a future where you at least have some say in what comes next. In that vision, he is not alone. Scads of startups have emerged to sell better death preparation, to people who are still alive. Some are as simple as modernizing the process of drafting a will (like Willing—TurboTax for estate planning). Others aim to give people more control over their end-of-life wishes (like Cake, where people can document requests for viking funerals, or preemptively draft their final tweets). The classic burial options have been upgraded by startups like Bio Urn (turn your ashes into a tree), Eternal Reefs (lay to rest on the ocean floor), Algordanza (from corpse to wearable diamonds), and Recompose (human composting).