Funerals in the COVID Age Are Virtual — and More Powerful Than Ever
When Sherri’s* father died from COVID-19 on April 3 in New Jersey, not only was she dealing with the pain of losing a parent, but also the logistics of planning a remote Jewish funeral from across the country on the West Coast. Perhaps even more challenging than the planning, though, was figuring out how to create meaning in a disrupted grieving process — one that would be completely virtual.
Despite the sadness of not being able to mourn in person, Sherri organized what ended up being a profoundly moving virtual service. She found a rabbi who was willing to officiate a burial service at a gravesite in New Jersey, while she joined virtually from California via social media, along with her mother and brother in Maryland.
She would have liked to have physically been there, of course, but the livestream was a close second. “I could hear everything,” said Sherri. “I could hear planes, I heard birds chirping. We participated where we could, and it felt meaningful.”
"People who would never have been able to fly to an in-person service were now able to attend."
Sherri also planned a virtual shiva — a weeklong mourning period following a burial in the Jewish tradition — that ended up having an unexpected benefit: People who would never have been able to fly to an in-person service were now able to attend.
“We were shocked and humbled by people who were coming out to this,” she said. “People turned up who wouldn't have been there if it was in person.”
The accessibility of virtual services is just one of the unexpected consequences of virtual funerals.
As the COVID-19 death toll in the United States continues to climb, virtual funeral services have become an undeniable part of life. Sherri is just one of many mourners who have been forced by circumstance to seek comfort in a new form of mourning. Mourners and clergy people alike have found that, despite the profound disruption to the grieving process, digital mourning has still been meaningful.
Maharat Ruth Friedman, a clergywoman at Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., has officiated two virtual funerals since March, and like Sherri, has found virtual ceremonies surprisingly effective.
“In my limited experience, video funerals are more powerful,” she said. “It adds to the tragedy when you see that immediate relatives can’t be at the funeral and how horribly sad it’s been for everyone.”
When Friedman officiated the video funeral of a 58-year-old man who died of COVID-19, she said she never cried at any other funeral she had officiated as much as she did at the 200-person virtual event. For her, leading funeral prayers and services via video was an additional reminder of the collective tragedy. “You feel the enormity of the sadness of the pandemic,” she said, “and the sadness of people who died alone.”
Learning from the New Circumstances
Friedman thinks there is something to be learned in virtual mourning. Shiva — typically done at the mourner’s home and characterized by plenty of comforting food and small talk — when done virtually has been stripped down to its most essential elements.
“There are no refreshments. Nobody can get you a cup of water. You’re just there,” said Friedman. “It removes the distraction that comes along with being in person.”
It’s this pared-down experience that Friedman feels is worth incorporating into in-person mourning once it resumes.
Dorry Newcomer, lead pastor at Lima United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania, who has officiated several virtual funerals since March, also sees this moment as an opportunity to rethink the mourning process. In Newcomer’s view, a single service to commemorate the dead is inadequate. Virtual grieving has forced people to think about new ways to convene and mourn beyond a single service — and maybe that’s not a bad thing.
“This is an opportunity for us to realize the grieving process isn’t ‘Plan it and get it over with,’ ” said Newcomer. “We need a more sustained support system.”
Carolyn Cavaness, pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, has been working on this very effort to create a more sustained grieving support. “There is something about the grieving process and crying together,” said Cavaness. “How do you create a space where that can happen?”
"There is something about the grieving process and crying together."
For starters, Cavaness is making sure grieving families are connected with grief-counseling resources as early in the process as possible. She’ll also set up a virtual meeting with friends and family prior to the funeral for loved ones to laugh and share memories before the funeral, giving mourners some additional sense of connection and support. Lastly, she stays in touch with mourning families and checks in with them well beyond the actual day of the funeral.
Cavaness sees the fact that mourners can no longer be physically present with the deceased on the day of the funeral as an opportunity to focus on that person’s legacy and positive memories, instead.
“How do you properly honor life and legacy without that in-person service?” she said. “Yes, we can't view the body, but why not just remember the good moments?”
* Sherri asked that her last name be withheld for privacy purposes.