Virtual grieving in the age of coronavirus

A funeral is a religious service, a way to honor the life of the deceased, and a source of comfort for grieving family members, who are supported in their pain by the presence of friends and the community.

But what happens when friends and neighbors can’t attend — because, as at present, a pandemic disease is forcing them to stay at home?

Imagine walking into an empty funeral home to say a last goodbye to a loved one, forced to sit alone in an isolated pew, unable even to hug one’s family. Imagine sending off a parent without a wake, without a eulogy, without sitting shiva

A priest delivers a sermon during a funeral attended only by the widow, the only relative allowed to be present, on March 26 in Paris. (Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

Funeral homes and places of worship around the country have been hit hard by social distancing guidelines limiting gatherings to no more than 10. Offering a hand to hold is considered taboo, a social kiss tantamount to risking death. So how does anyone experiencing the loss of a loved one deal with grief in a society where you can’t run to someone for comfort and support? 

“All these years, we’ve taken for granted that we’ve had that emotional touch with our family and friends and all of a sudden that is taken away from us and we don’t know how to handle ourselves. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to grieve anymore all of a sudden because we don’t have that connection, that closeness,” said Thomas Pirro Jr., a funeral director in Syracuse, N.Y. 

Adhering to these guidelines might be hard, but it’s a wise choice, and when not taken can lead to disaster. At a funeral in Georgia with more than 200 mourning family members, everyone gathered and cried together over the loss of their relative. Within a week, the town where the funeral took place became a hot spot for the virus, with many cases coming from that funeral alone. 

“This COVID-19 virus and the restrictions, the government and statewide restrictions have impacted the funeral industry greatly,” said Pirro. “Certainly we’re getting through it; we’re all in this together. We’re taking the precautions and following the steps we need to take. However, it is very much affecting the way people travel through the phases and steps of grief.”  

Services have drastically changed to accommodate the 10-person limit. “We’ve been able to continue to have private viewing for the immediate family. What that means is each person has to obviously respect the personal distance and carry that throughout the time they are here. But they can say goodbye to their loved ones. They can come to the funeral home and have those few minutes, at least, to pay their last respects — get their closure and their final goodbyes,” said Pirro.  

Undertakers wearing face masks carry a coffin out of a hearse on March 16 at the Monumental Cemetery in Bergamo, Italy. (Photo by Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images)

While some churches are not adhering to the federally suggested social isolation guidelines, others are looking for ways to bring faith and comfort to congregants at their homes. 

“I realized that we needed to up our game quickly. So we called in a local tech guy that morning, we laid down a bunch of cables, bought a new camera and upgraded within a day to make it all possible,” said the Rev. Andrew Buchanan of Galilee Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach, Va. 

Live-streaming a service requires quite a bit of equipment, but it wasn’t too much for this one church, and many others around the country, to handle. In order to be able to stream live on an internet platform, many of these churches just needed tech support, a few lights and a camera. 

“We’ve instituted streaming of funeral services so that distant family, people that aren’t immediate family, could attend remotely — also friends, they can attend,” said Pirro. There’s no limit to the number that can remotely attend.” While in two totally different locations and unaffiliated, both Pirro’s services in Syracuse and Buchanan’s in Virginia Beach offer patrons a sense of closure in this age of isolation. 

“We’re able to share a link with immediate family, and those family members can share it with whomever they like. We’ve taken it as far as putting a link in an obituary of a person and announcing a time and that the public is not invited physically to that location but can remotely use that link to attend the service,” said Pirro. 

Families have found that this has somehow filled the inevitable void left behind when someone close dies. In both Pirro and Buchanan’s experience, families are extremely grateful for the service opportunity and they find that attendance is higher than they would have ever expected. 

Buchanan, who typically has around 500 to 600 churchgoers every Sunday, said that at a recently streamed funeral service, he would have “expected around 500 to 600 people to show up, but we live-streamed it, and we’ve had over 1,000 views so far.” 

While the times we’re all living in have forced services from funerals to Sunday Mass to enter the world of live streaming, there is no doubt that there are some who are looking forward to the day when we can embrace one another again, especially in difficult times. 

“Seeing what I’m seeing now with COVID-19 and the restrictions that are put in place for families, people are realizing the true importance of having the physical interaction to help them through the grieving process,” says Pirro. 

While this is certainly a trying time for those seeking physical connection from fellow grieving relatives, the ability to stream funeral and church services to the masses seems to be a feature that some churches might hold onto for some time even when the pandemic recedes. “I think there is no going back for churches that have started live-streaming their services,” said Buchanan. “I’m doing live-stream Bible studies every day, and I’m getting 20 to 60 people who show up at that. I don’t think I could have done that before.” 

Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides. 

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