Michael Kibbee, M.Sc., P.Eng.
LIVES LIVED (From The Globe and Mail, March 20, 1997)
Michael Stanley Kibbee
By Gerald Hannon
Creator of the World Wide Cemetery.
Born in Brockville, Ontario, February 5, 1964.
Grew up in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario.
Died in Toronto March 8, 1997, of Hodgkins Disease.
I measure the beginning of the days of his dying by the sweet smell of pine boards, freshly cut, stacked neatly in the hallway of his apartment. He was an engineer, and when he learned he was dying of cancer he coped by making his death a project: he would design and build his own coffin. He was an engineer, but he was also a gay man. He said he could not bear the thought of leaving this world in some tacky commercial box, all plush and brass and gee-gaws. He insisted on simple pine, and he designed the pattern and angling of the boards, specified a lining of unbleached, raw cotton, bridled at the suggestion he be buried in a suit, asked only to be shrouded in that same raw fabric.
He had the startling individuality of a man who had never owned a television. He had the not always endearing social awkwardness of a man who had never read fiction. That lapse frequently led him to believe that people would behave reasonably, if only they knew the facts, and I would say, "oh Mike, read some stories, it's fiction gets you truth" and he would just wince and we would segue into half a night sometimes of argument and laughter and he would try to explain to me, with his meticulous little ink drawings, how a two-stroke engine worked and I would play him some music I loved and more often than not we would end up in a paroxysm of perfect geekiness about computers and the Internet, a passion we shared. His geekiness could be stellar: he yelped with glee when the Globe and Mail published his Morning Smile submission ("What do seagulls use to write their letters? Birdperfect").
But it was geekiness with sex appeal too: he was a handsome man, and he knew it, and he favoured plaid shirts, and jeans, and a black bomber jacket, no matter how cold the weather. He lived his final days in a tiny rented house, just nine feet wide, not much bigger than a garage, and half of what might have been called the living room was consumed by a motorcycle he thought too beautiful to ride. He owned a second, though, and took friends on nerve-shattering, late-night freeway runs, never quite noticing, I think, how their exhilaration was tinged with more than a little terror. He also owned a small boat, a Zodiac inflatable. He would indulge my passion for fireworks by taking me out on the water to watch the Symphony of Fire, and the first time we did that we never noticed that we'd come unmoored, and had drifted past the police safety line, and into the danger zone, where the sky writhed with fire just above our heads. He tried never to own more than two plates, two bowls, two forks, two knives, two spoons and two drinking glasses: but the glasses had to be crystal, and had to come from Ashley's.
His work as an engineer was a closed world to me, but his eccentrically creative solutions (sometimes to problems that were thought not to have any) dazzled his colleagues. When his Hodgkins returned, after a three-year remission, he was working on the Hibernia project in Newfoundland. He was the youngest engineer ever hired to do so.
He returned to Toronto then, for a bone-marrow transplant and one last painful round of chemo and radiation. It didn't work, but it bought him some time. He began to design his coffin. And he began the development, with his friend Steve Brauer, of what would become the World Wide Cemetery. It was a stroke of genius. It meant that a son, now living in Australia, say, could "visit" his father's grave just by turning on a computer, even though the body may have been physically interred in Canada. Visitors could leave "flowers": typically a short poem, or message of condolence. The site could have photographs, sound clips, even short video clips. The wonderful interconnectivity of the Web made it easy to link deaths (and the marvelous details of lives) of family members who may have died years apart and in different countries.
The project attracted international media attention. The Discovery Channel* in the U.S. filmed him for a segment on Death in America, and newspapers in Europe and the United States did features on this skinny, wasting young man, working so feverishly to complete a project he saw as his memorial and legacy.
When he began it, he did not think he had much time, and he hoped that it would be complete enough when he died that it could be inaugurated with his "burial." But one of those unpredictable cancer remissions happened, and when it was clear that he was going to live for a while longer, I brought up, gently, that maybe he wouldn't be the first one in the cemetery after all.
"Oh I know," he said, with that antic smile that carried us through one more summer of remission; one more summer of headlong motorcycling that would wrap the midnight city round us like a flag; one more summer of drifting too far out into a lake that mirrored a sky weeping with fire. "Oh, I know," he said, "I know. Isn't that a bummer!"
Mike's comments on the World Wide Cemetery.
Acknowledgements from The HTML Sourcebook, 3rd Edition , written by Mike's friend Ian S. Graham.
(Left) Mike Kibbee with friend Steve Brauer in 1995 and (right) with friend Gerald Hannon.