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Turning a Gravestone into an Interactive Life Story

Adding QR codes to grave markers allows the living to learn much more about the deceased than when they were born and died

By Richard Eisenberg

One sad thing about cemeteries is that visitors can learn little about most of the people buried there beyond their birth and death dates etched on their gravestones. Michael Bourque, an inventor and technologist in Melrose, Massachusetts, is using technology to change that.

A gravestone with a QR code. Next Avenue, QR code gravestone, tombstone
Michael Bourque's dad's gravestone  |  Credit: Courtesy of Michael Bourque.

Bourque, 55 ("I feel like 25," he says), creates QR codes for tombstones. Visitors with smartphones can scan one — grids of black squares on a white background are common outside of cemeteries — and open a Web page that can tell a fuller story of the deceased.

"He was a great dad. He taught me how to think differently."

Bourque was drawn to the idea by a desire to celebrate his father, John Harold Bourque, who died at age 87 in 2017. First, he bought a domain named after his father, then used a QR code generator to create a unique connection to that domain. Using a 3D printer in his home's "Invention Lab," Bourque created a 2½-inch square weatherproof version of the QR code and then glued it to his father's gravestone in Stoneham, Massachusetts.

What His QR Code Reveals

A smartphone or other device that scans the code opens a webpage that informs users about this husband, father, carpenter and genealogy fan who was known as an Atomic Veteran due to his role in the Nevada A-bomb testing and his Korean War military service.

"He was a great dad," says Bourque. "He taught me how to think differently."

Shortly after Bourque posted about the QR code on LinkedIn, where he has over 18,000 followers, he was flooded with comments and requests to make similar codes for others' loved ones.

Striking a Nerve

"You would not believe the responses I've been getting," says Bourque. "My email has been blowing up. There's been probably 3 million impressions on LinkedIn; over 626 people have reshared it and it keeps getting stronger and stronger and stronger. I read every single post and always say 'Thank you.' "

His father, Bourque says, would be thrilled with the sizzling sensation the gravestone QR code invention has become.

"He used to always tell funny jokes. If he were alive now, he'd be saying, 'This is one of those products that people are dying to use,'" laughs Bourque.

It is, he adds, "one of those inventions where you understand it and suddenly realize, 'Oh, that's really a good idea.' "

People around the world are scanning Bourque's QR code on LinkedIn. "Several of them are from Korea; boy, would my dad be delighted to know that," says Bourque.

A man smiling with his dad. Next Avenue, QR code gravestone, tombstone
Michael Bourque and his father  |  Credit: Courtesy of Michael Bourque.

What People Say, and Ask

While most of those responding are older, Bourque says, "I'm hearing from folks that their own kids are asking questions about their granddads or grandmothers and they know this information is lost."

Some have asked Bourque to create a QR code for their own loved ones. He's happy to oblige; the process takes about 10 minutes.

(You can ask Bourque for one by emailing [email protected] or filling out a form. The QR code is free if you agree to either share your loved one's story online or donate to an ALS fund of your choosing; one of Bourque's brothers died of ALS.)

An Inveterate Inventor

Bourque (whose LinkedIn profile describes him as "Inventor, Futurist, Designer, Creator, Technologies, Industrialist, Writer, Podcaster, Artist, Musician & Filmmaker") has been zealously inventing products for more than 35 years.

His first, at 16, was a bike-repair screwdriver he made for a bike shop where he worked. It shaved the time to fix a bike handle from 20 minutes to two. Bourque went to an inventors' advisory business to get his gizmo mass produced and was told he'd need to pay $10,000 for a prototype. He thought that was ridiculous and left.


"I've been back to that bicycle shop not too long ago," Bourque says. "Well, guess what? They are still using that screwdriver."

His Unusual Career Path

Bourque, who describes himself as "insatiably curious," never went to college.

After attending trade school to become an electrical engineer, he worked in a machine shop and started writing code there. That led to a job at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, doing top-secret work programming machines to manufacture complex aerospace parts.

"We had a saying: 'If I told you what I was doing, I'd have to shoot you after," Bourque jokes.

"I'm a person who is on a mission to help people launch their ideas."

Soon, he became a quality assurance engineer in a billion-dollar company's CAD-CAM software division. Ultimately, Bourque left with an itch to launch a startup, using his 3D printer there to invent a pod-based cannabis vaporizer.

These days, his day job is director of digital manufacturing for Boston Engineering, a 95-person, industrial machine manufacturer in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Other QR Memorial Options

Bourque acknowledges not being the first to have the idea to put QR codes —which have been read by smart phones since 2010 — in cemeteries.

Quiring Monuments offers $156 "Living Headstones" QR Codes. Digital Legacys sells QR tags with a memorial web page ($149.99 for a lifetime subscription). Aftercloud in the U.K. has a QR code-linked app to store multimedia content for $5 a month. And the Anchorage (Alaska) Memorial Park Cemetery has allowed QR codes on its graves and columbarium wall (a resting place for ashes after cremation) for eight years.

But people representing five companies, including Aftercloud, have been so taken with Bourque's particular creation that they've approached him to collaborate. He's eager to do so — as a social experiment.

"I practically got all these people to agree to work on this together on what I would consider as perhaps the most interesting social experiment that's ever been done on dead people," Bourque says.

'The World Needs Inventors'

But it's his side gig as an inventor, consultant and mentor to inventors that really gets his juices flowing.

"I'm a person who is on a mission to help people launch their ideas," Bourque says. "I'm very good with inventions and helping people. I invent a new thing every day. I 3D-print it every day. My new kick in life is helping those that have inventions move them forward, using state-of-the-art technology."

He's currently tinkering with starting a foundation called where inventors can collaborate.

"There's this huge billboard as you drive into Boston that says, "The world needs great lawyers. Now, I like lawyers, actually. But they're very expensive," Bourque says. "I want to get a can of spray paint, scratch out the word 'lawyers' and write 'inventors.' Because the world needs great inventors."

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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