Planning a funeral or memorial service often still involves traditional tasks such as purchasing a casket or arranging services. But modern advances ― and the realities imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic ― has made the inclusion of digital tasks, such as arranging an online service or tribute, more and more a standard part of commemorations.
Whether it’s a work obligation, caregiving commitment, tight budget, illness, disability, injury, or personal preference, there are many reasons why people may not be able to attend a remembrance in person. Now, they have alternatives to pay their respects virtually.
“I attended the streamed funeral of a colleague who was tragically killed in a plane crash,” said Randy Anderson, immediate past president of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and a funeral-home owner in Alexander City and Camp Hill, Alabama. He couldn’t make the out-of-state trip to attend the service.
“I was glad that I was able to participate even though I was hundreds of miles away,” Anderson said. “I was able to celebrate his great life and was able to grieve his loss in private.”
More than half of the 11,000 NFDA-member funeral homes have begun offering livestreamed services since the pandemic began, according to the association’s 2022 Cremation and Burial Report. Online services allow more friends, family, and colleagues to join in, but they also have their disadvantages.
“Attending virtually helped me to remember my friend, but I missed the close contact with his family and other colleagues,” Anderson said.
Planning the event
“It's a great blessing to be able to attend a service in other parts of the world over Zoom,” said Rabbi Ilan Glazer, the cofounder of Our Love Continues: Support for Jewish Parents After the Loss of a Child.
That said, having both attended and officiated at livestreamed funerals, Rabbi Glazer has experienced some of the issues that can make the experience less than ideal.
Some funeral homes haven’t invested in technology, such as good quality microphones, to make the sound clear over the stream, he explained. Sometimes people don’t speak into the microphones, and wind can make it difficult to hear outdoor services. And remote viewers can’t see speakers who don’t realize they aren’t in the camera’s field of view.
“I'd say that there should always be someone whose job it is to make sure the stream is working properly,” Rabbi Glazer said. “Often people assume that they’ll just set up a stream and it will work fine, and it’s amazing how many problems can show up.” The person in charge needs to ensure that the camera and sound are good and that everyone participating remotely is muted.
You don’t have to do all these things yourself or even rely on a traditional funeral home to provide them. You could hire an event planning company that specializes in hybrid funerals and virtual celebrations of life.
They’ll provide the invitations, technical support, and an event host or moderator. They can curate slideshows, edit custom tribute videos, and record the event. They’ll manage your guest list, help write the eulogy, coordinate who gets to speak when, and even do a dry run to identify and troubleshoot potential hiccups.
Some will even organize a legacy project — an activity loved ones participate in together to honor the deceased. They can also arrange to have your person’s favorite cookies shipped across the country so every attendee can enjoy the same food together as they would at an in-person event.
All of this help lets those who are grieving be present in the experience rather than managing logistics. (Related: Funeral costs and concerns)
Holding a virtual funeral or life celebration isn’t the only way to share a period of grieving and remembrance with those who are far away.
“When our son was stillborn in January, we didn’t stream the service, though we did have a mixture of in-person and virtual services during the week of shiva,” Rabbi Glazer said. “It was really nice to see so many comforting faces on Zoom — people really came out to support us, and my wife and I remain grateful.”
Modern American culture sometimes doesn’t seem to like to think or talk about death, and those who have lost someone tend to be expected to grieve alone. Virtual events and digital memorials can help us mourn — that is, express our grief in the presence of others. Both private and shared experiences of sadness are, according to death educator and grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt, important to healing after the loss of a loved one.
“There are several ways to memorialize a loved one online,” Anderson said. Recordings of streamed services can be added to an obituary webpage, along with tribute videos. These can be left on the website indefinitely so that friends and family can access them anytime.
Social sharing, virtual funeral and memorial services, and online tribute pages may be the answer to bringing back a common space for mourning — if they’re done well. Many older digital memorial pages seem to have little thought put into them, with poor quality photos and little text. Newer platforms offer a much better experience.
“I know more and more people are creating digital homes for their loved ones, and if it helps them feel like their loved one’s presence is still available to others, I’m all in favor of it,” Rabbi Glazer said. However, someone must be willing to coordinate and maintain the memorial page.
A thoughtful and well-maintained digital memorial can begin as a place to share information about a funeral service or celebration of life, then grow into a collection of photos, videos, and recollections put together by the deceased’s family, friends, and colleagues in their own time. (Related: What to do when a loved one dies: A checklist)
Contributors can communicate with each other through the platform, commenting on or adding to others’ memories. Some sites will let you keep your memorial online for free indefinitely or help you turn your online memorial into a printed memory book. With other sites, you must pay for and renew the memorial page or it will be taken down.
Some families are comfortable sharing recorded services and digital tributes with the whole world, while others want to keep things private.
If you don’t choose the right privacy settings, the memorial page may appear in search engine results. And anyone to whom you grant access can easily take screen shots and share them with others, even if you’ve password-protected your site. The same privacy caveats apply here as with information you share in text messages, emails, and private social media groups.
Digital memorials — or simply sharing news of a death or funeral online — can simplify challenging tasks during a difficult time. But it’s important to make sure that the immediate survivors control what gets shared and when. And if you’re the one who has to share the sad news, think about how you’d want to receive the news. A difficult phone call may be worth avoiding the shock of learning about a death through a text message or website.
Though funeral customs and expectations change over time, one thing seems to remain constant: the need for a healthy support network as we grieve. There’s nothing like interacting with others live and in person. But doing it online with mutual support is better than going it alone.
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