Mourning in a Virtual World

SEPTEMBER 27, 2020 09:00 AM

Let’s face it, no one looks forward to planning a funeral or memorial service. Three years ago after the death of my husband, I was faced with just that task. Even when death is expected, as his was following a steep decline after living several years with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), it wasn’t easy.

I had the luxury of time. Two months to plan from death to memorial. Family and friends were spread out across the country, as were colleagues and former students. Although these months gave most people time to plan their attendance, the person who mattered most, my 88-year-old mother-in-law, was not able to travel. Fortunately, the memorial service was held on the Penn State campus and the facility had the capacity to livestream the event. A dear friend set it up and my mother-in-law in Massachusetts was able to say one last goodbye to her first-born son. I was even able to save the recording.

Fast forward three years and the present COVID pandemic. Families are still facing the same problems of distance and time, but limitations on the size of group gatherings must be considered. In the spring, churches were closed and graveside services for immediate family seemed to be the norm.

In May, a couple of months into the pandemic, I learned on Facebook that a former teacher of mine in New York State was very ill. She passed away in short course at the age of 90. It wasn’t like we were very close and it was 50 years ago since she taught me, but I saw posted that her funeral Mass would be livestreamed. No excuses. I could “be” there. It was quite moving to hear from the family about this woman who taught me so many years ago and would teach for decades afterward. So there I was, sitting at my computer on a weekday morning, laughing and crying to eulogies, paying my respects to a woman I hadn’t really thought about since high school graduation.

Then June arrived and I learned of the dire medical condition of one of my husband’s former graduate students. By the time I found out, she was in intensive care in Pittsburgh. We were all hoping for a miracle because she seemed to be beating the odds, but that hope was short lived. I can only describe her rapid decline and death as soul-crushing. I felt devastated for the family she left behind as well as her many friends and students. Mourning this loss alone was not going to be easy, so I was comforted to learn that the service would be livestreamed from the funeral home. I felt very somber tuning in to this event, tissues ready at my side. Once again, prayers, heartfelt eulogies, seeing friends present and reading the names of friends who joined in online helped me feel truly connected to this service. The laughter and tears mutually shared by all filled my quiet house with my lost friend’s spirit. I felt the love everyone had for her and sadly said my goodbyes too.

As the months went by, I wasn’t the only one attending virtual funerals. A friend related the story of two services she attended recently. The first was held at a funeral home in Ohio for an elderly couple who died within three hours of one another. During the service the cameras stayed focused on the speakers and photos on display could be viewed as the people exited. My friend found herself moved to tears. Her second experience was a wholly virtual service that was recorded and which she viewed three weeks after the event. An Anglican priest in British Columbia conducted the service alone in the church. After the initial prayers and readings, the deceased man’s four children spoke in turn from a second location, about what they remembered and learned from their father. As they were speaking, the man’s wife of 58 years, sitting on a couch, could be seen laughing along with them. As a virtual attendee, my friend said it did her good to physically see his widow, surrounded by family.

Circumstances and religious beliefs make each funeral and memorial unique. Services vary, but the reasons for holding and attending them are universal. Paying respect to those who die is what makes us human. Sharing memories in a virtual funeral is one of the most profound things I’ve experienced. The love and respect for the deceased, the virtual hugs, just the atmosphere of love and caring is palpable even though it is virtual.

Funerals begin the healing process for those left behind. Even after this pandemic is history, I would encourage everyone to consider virtual funeral recording. It reminds me of a quote by Irwin Yalom; “Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead — when I exist in no one’s memory.”

The memories of our beloved friends and family can be preserved.

Mary Curran worked for decades in hospital, industry and university laboratories. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

This was first printed in the Centre Daily Times on September 27, 2020.