“We’re not talking about a seven-hour thing here,” he says.
Being fully present is especially important for participants, says Aimee Symington, CEO of the etiquette consulting firm Finesse Worldwide. “If they are on video, they need to pay attention and not do things that are distracting. If they are being shown on a screen, they don’t want to be getting up and sitting down, having their dog jump on their lap, answering a phone call.”
Give Mourners Time to Visit
One of the biggest challenges of pandemic-era end-of-life rituals is that mourners are separated from the community.
“A part of the grieving process is to connect with other people, to talk with other people, but Covid has changed that,” says Reginald Porter, retired senior pastor at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Memphis.
Even at small, in-person funerals at the church, he says, “You are there, you are masked, you are socially distanced, and afterwards, maybe, you go up and nod from a distance, but there is no hugging, no shaking hands. That has changed the whole grieving process and the whole paradigm for grieving during the Covid era.”
Swann recommends setting aside time at a virtual event for people to visit and share stories, something that clients of hers have done successfully. “They were able to share stories of the loved one, and it resulted in some lighthearted moments,” she said. “It helped bring levity to the whole moment.”
Again, the key is to plan ahead. Let people know in advance that they’ll have time to speak or share photos, so that they can prepare. After the service is over, designate a moderator, perhaps an uncle or aunt, to take over. The moderator can create a sign-up using the chat function, invite guests who hope to speak to raise their hands using virtual features, or call on mourners individually to let them know when it’s their time to share.
“Plan it out so that people can feel engaged,” Swann says. “That helps the grieving process.”
Use the Chat Feature Wisely
Symington suggests that those who don’t want to speak can use the chat function to write some words of condolence or share a story, so that after the event, the deceased’s family can see a printout or even put the stories in a memory book.
But Farley cautions against using the chat function as a medium for side conversations. “It’s way too easy, especially if we’re talking about Zoom, for somebody to accidentally broadcast a message to an entire group that they meant for one person,” he says. “If you’re saying, ‘Oh my goodness, look at Cousin Bob—he’s gained weight’—that would be a mortifying thing to broadcast. Keep the window open in case there’s a message you need to answer. But in general, using the chat feature is risky and—at a minimum—it means you’re not dialed in to the main stage.”
Virtual Funerals Are Here to Stay
Onscreen funerals are not new. Nearly 24 years ago, 2.5 billion people tuned in to watch Princess Diana’s from Westminster Abbey. But the pandemic has meant that celebrity is no longer a requirement for a livestreamed funeral.
Swann is among the etiquette experts who believe that virtual end-of-life events are here to stay, which is why it’s important, she says, to figure this out now. “I think once the doors open and we can all gather again, we’ll start to think of including people who are not physically present with us, and we’ll lean on some of these resources that we had in the pandemic. It will continue in its own format. Rather than ‘instead of’ it will be ‘in addition to.’”