Matt Frank had been dead for eight hours when the first goodbye message was posted on his MySpace page.
The note was short and simple: I love you. I'll miss you.
Dozens more followed, as disbelieving friends took to the Web to mourn the 17-year-old and three other teenagers who were killed Sunday when a car — crammed with nine passengers — slammed into a utility pole after a late-night house party in suburban Chicago.
"All I can say out of everything that I told you and taught you, I wish so bad that you wouldn't have taken my quote to heart... 'Live well, Party harty, Die young,'" wrote friend Kristi Morrison, 19. "Im so sorry I wish I could take that back... I love you so much man."
More than half of teenagers who use the Internet frequent social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, where they create elaborate profiles and personalize them with photos, music and video. It follows that the online hangouts have become as important to young people in death as they were in life.
"These are places where people in many ways lived their lives online," said Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "And what better way to grieve or mourn a person than in a space they created."
Policies on what to do when an Internet user or blogger dies vary among services, illustrated by the 2005 case of a Marine killed in Iraq whose family went to court to get access to e-mails he had sent through a Yahoo Inc. account.
MySpace avoids deleting the deceased's profiles unless asked by family members, which means the profiles-turned-memorials can stay active for years. Other social-networking and blogging sites, such as Xanga and LiveJournal, also host memorials tied to deceased users' pages.
"We often hear from families that a user's profile is a way for friends to celebrate the person's life, giving friends a positive outlet to connect with one another and find comfort during the grieving process," MySpace, a unit of News Corp., said in a statement.
Bernice Hartman didn't know her daughter had a MySpace account until the 21-year-old soldier was killed during a September suicide bombing in Iraq.
Months after Jen Hartman's death, messages and tributes — even Thanksgiving greetings — continued to pop up on the site.
"It's hard to read, but it's more comforting," said Bernice Hartman of New Ringgold, Pa. "I think it's easier for her friends. They come to us at the funeral and say things, but I think it's easier for them to leave a message on that than to talk to us personally."
Even the funeral industry has gotten into the act, providing forums for e-condolences on Web sites like Legacy.com and Mem.com.
Bennett Leventhal, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois Chicago's Institute for Juvenile Research, said mourning on MySpace is a natural extension of a society where handwritten notes have given way to e-mails and text messages.
"The Phoenicians had to chip it into tablets," he said. "(This) is just a different form of communication. I don't think it changes the subject or intent. ... It's just another form of public grieving."
Because networking sites don't monitor the contents of every profile, it's possible for people to post disparaging comments.
The posthumous messages on Frank's page, however, tell of shared kisses, parties, adventures, basketball games and the grief of cleaning out the teen's bedroom.
"Since the pages are personal it sort of feels like you are still able to talk to the person you just lost, and it seems to offer an intimate means of sitting down by yourself and having that last goodbye," said Phil Lorenz, 27, a family friend who posted a goodbye message.
So far, Morrison has posted notes to Frank's profile three times, as well as to the pages of the accident's other victims.
"I didn't get to say goodbye to any of them. And I just wanted to say goodbye," she said in an interview. "I don't know if it makes people feel better. Maybe it's just wishful thinking, that they are reading it from heaven."