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MIT Technology Review

The lonely reality of Zoom funerals

Covid-19 is forcing people to confront death while simultaneously upending all the usual ways we process loss.

Thomas Kronsteiner / Getty Images

Lori Perlow emailed her colleagues when her grandmother died last Monday, letting them know she’d take the afternoon off. She sat down at her computer the next day and opened Zoom, just as she would on a work day. This time, though, she was there to watch the burial. There would be no shiva, no neighbors with hugs and casseroles. Her grief was stuck inside the walls of her home.

Perlow was in southern New Jersey; her grandmother, Sylvia Weingast, died in Brooklyn and was buried on Long Island. The drive was doable, but the risks were too many. Health-care workers had been in and out of her grandmother’s home in those last days, and they don’t know if she had covid-19: Weingast was never tested. Social distancing meant only 10 people were allowed to attend the funeral in person, and their family was big. As she watched the live-stream, she felt strange, and a little bit angry. It felt disrespectful to her grandmother, who’d survived the Holocaust, to watch her burial on the same platform she used for office meetings. It didn’t bring her comfort.

“It’s like watching a movie, but you’re part of it,” Perlow says. “Watching the burial, with the people who were there wearing masks, not getting close to each other, not hugging, just standing scattered apart. It’s weird—it’s really weird.” She didn’t know what to do. She baked an apple cake. She tweeted to say that her grandmother deserved more.

The global coronavirus pandemic has forced people to think about death, while simultaneously upending the ways in which we are used to experiencing grief and loss. Zoom funerals, delayed burials, and virtual goodbyes have replaced hugs, wakes, and held hands. The only option is to grieve online. Experts say that while there are ways in which live video and online social connections can help, everyone needs something different in grief. Just like everything else, mourning the dead is harder in our new reality.

When the 'casserole train' vanishes

The coronavirus pandemic didn’t create online mourning and grief. Facebook groups already connect mothers grieving young children to each other, and social-media profiles often become memorials. And in tight-knit and extremely online communities like fandom or gaming, people have spent years learning to mourn the loss of close friends they never met.

Live-streaming, too, is already a part of how people grieve. Well before coronavirus sent billions of people into lockdown, there were reasons not everybody could make it to a funeral. In some faiths, like Judaism, burial is supposed to happen shortly after death; even without that constraint, travel limitations have long prevented some people from attending memorials to their loved ones

“Undocumented communities have been living with this reality for many years now,” says Sarah Chavez, the director of The Order of the Good Death, an organization that advocates for death acceptance. “Heartbreaking stories of children not being able to say goodbye to dying parents; husbands and wives being forced to watch each other die and be buried through Skype.” Virtual mourning has also been a part of grief in rural areas, where there are fewer in-person resources, and for those mourning certain types of loss, like suicide, drug-related deaths, homicide, or the death of a young child.

But the covid-19 pandemic has forced all those dealing with death to confront the possibility that they won’t be able to access what mourners may need most: human touch, connection, and community support. They will likely be deprived of the comforting rituals that psychotherapist and grief specialist Megan Devine calls the “casserole train.” The paradox of the pandemic is that people are more aware of death and grieving, yet less available to help others through it.  “The amount of support that might have been available now has evaporated,” Devine says.

This is the comfort Perlow lacked when she lost her grandmother. For Jewish mourners, shiva is normally a week-long period after the burial when the immediate family grieves together while friends and relatives visit to pay respects. But covid-19 isolation meant her family simply stayed apart in their homes. And the arrival of Passover cut their shiva short. “The whole purpose of it is to be together with mourners and provide comfort,” Perlow says. “We could pray—anybody could pray from anywhere. But the comfort part is what is missing.”

'Little gestures'

Clay Dippel, a funeral director at Bradshaw-Carter funeral home in Houston, is trying his best. A few weeks ago, he was calling families back every few days to inform them of new restrictions: a planned 100-person church service was limited to 50, and then 25, and then 10. Eventually restrictions meant that just one household of immediate family would be allowed into a funeral. It was heartbreaking, he says.

Dippel’s funeral home actually started using a service called OneRoom to live-stream funerals about a year ago. Bradshaw-Carter is near the Texas Medical Center, an enormous medical campus that treats many patients from out of state for serious, sometimes life-threatening illnesses. Live-streaming helps family members who are far from Houston still be present at funerals in some way. Now it’s the only real option—other than delaying ceremonies until the restrictions ease—and so he’s focusing on how it can help.

On Friday, he oversaw a cremation. It was unsafe for the wife of the deceased to go, so she watched online. Dippel held a phone at a graveside service last weekend, live-streaming to the family. “I looked over at the phone,” he said. “I could see them watching. They had taken the time to dress up in a coat and tie. It’s a little gesture. That’s what a funeral is—gestures.”

Chavez and Devine have seen those gestures spread online in recent weeks. In the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, for example, one player created a virtual gravesite to visit in honor of her grandparents. Devine notes that grieving people are seeking out others going through something similar online, to talk about what it’s like to be in mourning and in isolation. Both say that the internet can help in ways beyond trying to re-create a burial or funeral service.

Zoom funerals will never be the same as the real thing. But they can make space to acknowledge that grief is awful.

“I’m hoping that by voicing and sharing our grief online we can learn to normalize the experience and demonstrate that grief is hard, but it is a shared, normal human experience,” Chavez says.

In a way, everyone is experiencing some sort of grief right now. Maybe grief in isolation doesn’t have to be as lonely as it seems.

Devine says that grieving families should consider new rituals designed for this moment. Start a Google doc, for example, where people can contribute ideas for how to honor the deceased when social distancing restrictions lift. Or use videoconferencing to cook dinner together, or share cocktails, and remember and plan.

“We can lean on the old ways of doing things, or we can use this time to try tools and skills and platforms that help people feel cared for,” she says.

Meanwhile, Lori Perlow hopes that when things start returning to normal her family will be able to honor her grandmother in the way she deserves. It won’t be the same, but it’ll be better than this.

She thinks about the rose bushes in her grandmother’s backyard. She considers whether she might be able to get to the house, take one, and replant it.