At Richfield’s Wood Lake Nature Center, QR codes are portals to lives once lived

QR codes have become popular as a promotional tool in recent years, allowing anyone with a smartphone to scan a code that links them to a website, but now they are being used to remember loved ones by connecting passersby to memorial websites. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun Newspapers)

Now anybody who visits Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield and comes across the memorial garden at the entryway can find out who Sue Olson was.

She was a traveler, a counselor, a wife, a nurse and a mother of one daughter. But there was more to Olson, and the details are unveiled with the help of what looks like scrambled postage stamp, a tiny blur of black and white dots called a quick response — or QR — code. They have become a popular marketing tool in recent years, directing people to promotional materials via their smart phones. They scan the code using the phone’s camera and some free software, and are taken to a website or other electronic promotional venues.

But now, QR codes are giving glimpses into the lives of the deceased. At Wood Lake Nature Center, the codes are in place at two memorial gardens, with more on the way.

When Olson died of cancer in 2005, “my grieving process was pretty ugly,” said Sid Munson, Olson’s second husband. Olson died shortly after the couple moved into a home across the street from Wood Lake Nature Center.

To cope, Munson, along with nature center director Karen Shragg, threw himself into a project to revamp the center’s deteriorating entryway. They turned the wooden steps into concrete ones. They installed a gate, replaced the asphalt walkway with earth-toned pavers.

To cap it off, they built a memorial garden to Olson, with a rock listing her name and lifespan: June 11, 1952 – Nov. 14, 2005. Since the garden was established in late 2006, to passersby who didn’t know Olson the sight was only a rock with a name and two dates, surrounded by a peaceful array of greenery.

That all is still there, but the rubberized QR code, affixed to one corner of the rock earlier this month, provides a different glimpse — into the life of someone who is no longer here.

“Memorials can raise more questions than answers,” said Shragg, whose late grandmother, Babe Shragg, has a QR code on her grave at Minneapolis Jewish Cemetery.

The QR codes have answers. The one for Olson links to a web site with a biography and a few select pictures.

Those who scan the code will learn she was born in Woodville, Wisc., to Albert and Marie Olson. She had one brother, who turned out to be a physician. She was a social worker. She liked to travel — around the world, but especially to the north shore of Lake Superior, and especially to the area surrounding the town of Tofte.

But “it was very clear her greatest devotion was the raising of her only daughter, Kirsten,” the biography reads.

The life story goes on to say Olson wasn’t much for attention “and never sought accolades of any kind, so this garden tribute would dumbfound or perhaps even embarrass her.”

The words are enough to give a stranger chills. And this way, Olson’s granddaughters won’t be strangers themselves. “They can come over and see their grandma Sue,” Munson said. His step-granddaughters never knew their grandmother.

A handful of memorial companies provide these kinds of QR codes. The nature center directs people to Katzman Monument Company, which does national business selling memorials. The QR code aspect of the business is about four months old, said Norman Taple, the company’s president.

The adhesive codes, which are barely noticeable unless someone is looking for them, cost $150. In addition to the final product, the process itself of assembling the content brings comfort to those who have lost a loved one, Taple says.

“People have this opportunity to reconnect with family members” as they get together to look over old photos and write a biography for the electronic memorial, Taple noted.

“It’s so easy,” said Munson, who does not own a smart phone and described himself as “not a very techie guy.”

A few feet down the path from Olson’s memorial is another memorial garden, with a rock dedicated to Bill Carlson, the late WCCO-TV anchor and Wood Lake Nature Center booster. His memorial provides a more extensive look at the possibilities the QR codes bring.

In addition to a biography, there are a couple dozen pictures — of Carlson lounging on a deck chair with his wife, Nancy, Carlson sleeping with his big brown dog, Carlson and Nancy getting ready to cut their wedding cake, Carlson sitting down to birthday cake with family. The memorial site also features videos of Carlson.

Two more of the QR codes are soon on the way to memorials at Wood Lake Nature Center, Shragg said. With 35 memorial benches spread across the center, there are plenty of places to put them.

“I think this might catch on,” Munson said.

Shragg, the author of the recently released book, “Grieveing Outside the Box,” views the tiny portals as another layer to the interpretive mission of center.

“We are an interpretive center, and these codes help to interpret people’s lives,” she said. “It kind of gives them a second life, really.”

That the codes enrich the nature center is fitting, considering the final line of Olson’s online biography:

“Sue definitely left the world a better place.”

The memorial websites can also be accessed via computer by visiting and entering the corresponding IDs. The ID for Olson is 2930. Carlson’s site can be reached by entering 2931.