Funeral directors are facing an unprecedented challenge in the era of COVID-19 as they work to make their ceremonies for grieving families both meaningful and safe.
Planning a virtual funeral requires sensitivity to the emotional state of mourners as well as consideration of the fact that some people who want to “attend” may not be very tech-savvy.
Fortunately, online video conferencing can be as simple as having participants click on a link that takes them to a site where the funeral will take place.
Generally, virtual funerals do involve a handful of people being present either at the funeral home or the graveside, generally immediate family, while the rest of the attendees watch and participate from home. Funeral directors still must try to enforce social distancing guidelines among those who are not members of the same household. This can be particularly difficult in the emotional atmosphere of a funeral, when people are used to being able to touch and hug one another for comfort.
Furthermore, while there does not appear to be danger of catching COVID-19 from the deceased person, under safe social distancing guidelines, best practices are that people should not touch the casket or the body of their loved one. Singing is another in-person activity that can be particularly dangerous and that funeral directors may need to discourage.
An answering service may serve as the first point of contact for many grieving families, and this may actually make the planning process more efficient since they can get replies to any questions they have promptly and can be directed quickly to the right funeral home personnel in other instances.
Families and Coronavirus
People who work in the funeral industry already know that grief may manifest itself in many different ways and that families can have their own individual approaches to mourning. However, loss and grief during COVID-19 has introduced some additional unique dynamics that funeral directors may need to help manage.
Family members may have differing views and risk tolerance. This could lead to some conflict between immediate family members who might otherwise be among the few in-person mourners but who would prefer to participate virtually to maximize their safety and that of others versus those who feel it is important to be there on the day. The context and experience of remote funerals for families is likely to vary greatly. Other elements that may be significant include the following:
- families who were unable to be with their loved one for days or even weeks leading up to their death
- families who feel strongly about being unable to participate in the rites of their religion in person
- families who feel that the virtual option actually enhances the funeral since people from far away “can attend”
It may be necessary to take these and other special circumstances into consideration when working with families and planning the funeral.
Virtual Mourning Before COVID-19
As unfamiliar as the concept of a “virtual funeral” may be, people coming together online to express sympathy and share memories of a loved one is not entirely new. For several years, most funeral homes have offered virtual “guestbooks” that allow people to share their thoughts and condolences online. Many social media platforms have introduced ways for family members to deal with the accounts of loved ones they have lost, with “memorializing” a Facebook account being one of the best known. Even if an account is not memorialized, it is common for people to share thoughts about loved ones who have died on social media. It can help to start with some of these examples as a framework for families as they begin thinking about how they will mourn and honor their loved one.
Planning the Funeral
Some families who have had to hold virtual funerals in recent weeks have been surprised at how moving and meaningful these ceremonies have been. In many ways, the key to creating a successful virtual funeral is the same as creating any other type of funeral. Funeral directors should work with families to ensure that they are able to honor their loved ones in a way they feel reflects who they were and the life they led.
A well-planned, professional funeral can be important in making mourners feel as though they are still participating in a “real” ritual and not simply video conferencing with friends and families.
People who want to have a physical service should keep in mind that a virtual funeral does not preclude the possibility of a memorial service later when people are able to gather again. The virtual funeral can still serve as an important tool for closure for grieving loved ones.
Some families may want to turn to the religious bodies that they are members of for assistance in planning the funeral. The ceremony can follow a pattern similar to one that a physical funeral would. There can be one or more speakers, and some people may want to sing.
One feature a virtual service can offer that a physical one cannot is giving people an opportunity to share memories about the person even if they are not comfortable getting up and talking in front of a group. People can simply type their thoughts into the chat stream instead of speaking if they prefer. The stream can also be recorded for those who could not “attend” or who might want to watch it again at a later date.
After the Funeral
Traditionally, funerals do not end at the graveside. Family members often gather at another location afterwards for a meal and more time spent together. This can be as important in the healing process as the funeral itself, and families might want to consider how they can reproduce something similar rather than simply having everyone log off at the end of the planned ceremony. It may be helpful to create more structure for this than would be necessary for an in-person gathering.
This might be the time when memories of the deceased could be more widely shared. Families can get creative and shape this in a way that is personally meaningful. For example, if food was a big part of their shared family life, they might all have some prepared so they can “share” a meal together virtually.
If a family has chosen to have a loved one cremated, it can be important to work out a method of returning the person’s ashes to the family in a way that feels appropriate while observing safe social distancing. For example, the funeral home can prepare an attractive arrangement that includes the urn for the family to pick up without contact.
Funeral homes may also want to consider compiling a list of suggestions of ways that families can honor loved ones in a more public way. Some of these might include:
- creating a vigil on a porch or windowsill that can be seen from outside, and allowing fellow mourners to drive past
- planting something in the loved one’s memory
- making a donation in the memory of a loved one
- crowdsourcing photos and memories to make an online scrapbook
Memorial Ceremonies After COVID-19
Funeral directors have noted that one major change in their industry is that while funerals once had to be arranged within days, people are now booking months ahead for memorial services that they expect to be able to have once COVID-19 is better controlled. The practice of scheduling memorial services weeks or months later used to be much rarer.
It is unclear how long virtual funerals will be necessary. Recommendations may vary in different parts of the country, and eventually, restrictions may be tightened and loosened depending on how much the local community is affected by COVID-19 at any given time.
Many funeral homes have offered streaming options for those who could not attend for some time, but few families took them up on it prior to COVID-19. Even as the industry eventually shifts back to more in-person funerals, a virtual element may be here to stay as people have become more familiar with the idea and more comfortable with the technology.
For funeral directors, families and loved ones of the deceased, there is no getting away from the fact that a virtual funeral is not the same as a traditional one and lacks some of the specific elements that make those ceremonies so important. The inability to meet with family members and longtime friends and offer comfort via touch can be particularly difficult as can the lack of opportunity to spend time together afterwards. Acknowledging the shortcomings of a virtual funeral while also highlighting some potential positives may help. Ultimately, as with a traditional funeral, it is important to allow families to guide the process while still being cognizant of safety.
In the time of COVID-19, it can be more important than ever that people facing the death of a loved one have their concerns listened to and that they are able to get questions answered promptly. An answering service can help take some of the burden off funeral homes and their staff and still provide the essential support that families need. Personnel trained in the industry, with the knowledge and compassion necessary to answer and questions and reassure families that have concerns, can be available 24/7. This can help families feel supported during one of the most difficult times of their lives.
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