Each month, for hours at a time, Trav Edmondson finds himself browsing Facebook and MySpace profiles of people he's never met, people he'll never have a chance to meet.
They're victims of murders, car accidents, and suicides, and news articles and obituaries about them are collected with links to their social media profiles on MyDeathSpace. The site includes extensive message boards allowing people like Edmonson to analyze and discuss their passings.
"I've shared the site with other people, and they just think it's bizarre. Your average person would just say 'wow' or 'that's disgusting,'" said Edmondson, 33, of Richmond, Va. "But I think if more people paid attention to how people died, we would live better lives. We wouldn't be smoking, speeding, doing crimes, eating horrible food."
The growth of social media has opened up a world of mourning on the Internet, with millions of Facebook profiles alone that memorialize their late owners. Usually, online tributes to the dead are used by loved ones and family members, but MyDeathSpace is aimed at the morbidly curious: It maintains archives or links to 17,825 profiles of the dead and gets up to 11,000 visitors a day.
The site, launched in 2005 and named after MySpace, which was the most popular social network at the time, includes sections for "missing persons," "social networking criminals," people who are "found/no longer missing," and "mystery deaths," among others.
On Thursday, a user named "puzzld " posted a news article about Nicholas Wieme, a 23-year-old who died that morning after falling down a smokestack at the Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago. Police speculated the man had climbed the ladder near the smokestack to take photos, but users on MyDeathSpace were still investigating. Another user, AnnyBoo, replied with links to Wieme's Facebook account and a profile of him on a comedy website. A user named Nancy Drew chimed in with information about a friend on Facebook who may have known Wieme.
These kinds of cases first drew Edmondson to the site beginning in 2006. He's also a member of a Facebook page the site maintains, which has 11,362 "likes."
"I come from a family of police and detectives, so it's just a part of me to wonder what happens to people when they die," he says. "You can always go to the person's page and see how that person was feeling the date before they died, what was going through their mind depending on if it was a suicide, a murder or if there was anyone else tied into it."
Edmondson, who is a single father to an autistic 6-year-old daughter and is living with a degenerative bone disease, said reading about some of the more reckless causes of death on the site has made him more aware of his own mortality.
"It's changed my way of thinking. Ever since I started reading this site, I never have gotten a speeding ticket again. It's made me more paranoid and cautious," he said. "I don't want to die in some dumb way and leave my daughter behind. She'd be an orphan."
A sculptor who spends much of his time at home taking care of his daughter, Edmondson said reading so much about death has also changed his own views on his own death.
"I think some things should be respected. Like, if I had been suffering a terminal disease and my body was all mangled and people were mocking me online, that's horrible. That shouldn't go up there," he said. "But if I died in a murder, then yeah, that should be up there for the public to see and learn from."