Alissa Surendran and her husband didn’t know Nicholas Berg, but they knew they wanted to reach out to the family of the Pennsylvania man beheaded in Iraq last week.
“My God,” said Surendran, a Westchester, Ill., resident. “He was an innocent person that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
So like more than 2,000 others around the world, the couple turned to an Evanston-based Web site to share their condolences.
Legacy.com, based at 820 Davis St., is an obituary database linked to about 125 newspapers nationwide that allows users to search entries, find funeral information, send flowers and leave condolence notes in an online “guestbook.”
The site, founded in 1998, began working with newspapers about four years ago and now one of every three U.S. deaths appears on the site, said Hayes Ferguson, chief operating officer for Legacy.com.
The company opened in Chicago but moved to Evanston to be close to the talent pool at Northwestern, said Ferguson, who also is a lecturer in the Medill School of Journalism.
The site’s guestbooks allow users to leave messages for family members and even write notes directly to the deceased person, Ferguson said.
“A few years ago when your favorite elementary teacher died,” Ferguson said, “you might read a couple of paragraphs in the newspaper, but you wouldn’t have the tools to contact the family. But now you can get on the computer and post an entry that the family will see.”
As of May 20, about 2,040 people from more than 45 states and 30 countries on six continents had signed the Berg guestbook.
“It’s extraordinary,” Ferguson said. “That 2,000 people have taken the time to write notes of condolence is really impressive, especially because most of those names are from people who don’t even know him.”
Kristin Krohn, from Waialua, Hawaii, said after reading about Berg’s life, she could relate to the Berg family and wanted to express her feelings for someone who seemed like “a typical American kid.”
“My family is deeply saddened by this tragic loss,” Krohn wrote in Berg’s Legacy.com guestbook. “From what I have read about Nick, he was a brave, loving, HERO! I will never forget Nick. He will always have a place in my heart.”
Although ordinary individuals often receive hundreds of entries, few people obtain more than one thousand, Ferguson said. The most popular guestbook — with more than 5,300 entries — belongs to former NFL player Pat Tillman, who was killed in combat in Afghanistan in April.
Legacy.com receives about 200,000 guestbook entries a month, and all of these are screened by one of Legacy.com’s 35 employees for offensive or inappropriate content. About 2 or 3 percent of entries end up being deleted, Ferguson said.
Chuck Falzone, customer service manager at Legacy.com, has been screening entries for four years. He said his job gives him a chance to see how people are remembered. He said he thinks there has been such a huge outpouring of sympathy for Berg because people can relate to him.
“From what I’ve read, they put themselves in the place of him in their entries,” Falzone said. “It inspires that emotional reaction and they want to share in that a little bit.”
Chicago resident Stephen Mostacchio, whose wife, Karen, died in February 2003 and has a guestbook on Legacy.com, said he finds comfort in entries left by other people.
“It warms your heart,” Mostacchio said. “It lets me see what my wife meant to everyone. It lets me see how many people she touched and how many people think about her not just by the day, but by the hour.”
Mary Zakrewski, from Allentown, Pa., found the link to Legacy.com on America Online and said it made her feel less powerless to reach out to Berg and his family.
“(People) want to do something because if that were to happen to them people would want someone to give them a voice,” Zakrewski said. “Nick Berg didn’t get a voice. He had that taken away from him. Through Legacy.com he got a voice. I know he’s looking down and smiling.”