Tagged Funerals and Memorials

Zoom Funeral Tips

How to Hold a Virtual Memorial Service

A virtual memorial offers several advantages: It’s easy for distant guests to attend, and you can record it.

Credit…Derek Abella

  • Jan. 14, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

When my 80-year-old father recently died, coronavirus restrictions meant that our family, like many others, could not safely gather for a funeral. My mother, brother and sister-in-law in New York, along with me in Berkeley, Calif., hastily organized a memorial service on Zoom.

What could have been a disaster or fodder for an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” ended up being incredibly moving. Rather than diminishing the experience or getting in the way, videoconferencing facilitated an event filled with emotion, humor and love. During a difficult time for our family — in a devastating year for the entire world — that was an unexpected blessing.

Despite our fatigue with remote work meetings, we all were struck by how well-suited it turned out to be for a memorial.

Families who are opting for video memorials are probably doing so because of pandemic restrictions limiting the number of people who can attend an indoor gathering. Since you can join a virtual event from anywhere — and with minimal planning — more people are likely to attend than if they needed to travel to an in-person event.

In our case, the immediate family was on both coasts, one grandchild was in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the rabbi, Jeff Salkin of Temple Israel West Palm Beach, a longtime friend and former student of my dad, was in Florida.

With a videoconferencing service, you can style your memorial as you like. While we did not include photos, videos or music, nothing prevents you from doing so. In addition, a virtual memorial costs much less than an in-person event, where you’d have to pay for the brick-and-mortar venue and perhaps catered food. And you can easily record the event to share and save for posterity.

A virtual memorial also might accommodate more speakers than an in-person event. Ours began with moving eulogies by Rabbi Salkin, followed by my brother and me, then morphed into an impromptu shiva, as numerous guests offered wonderful remembrances and reflections about my dad. The event lasted two and a half hours; many people remained the entire time.

My father’s was not Rabbi Salkin’s first Zoom memorial service. He was skeptical before he led a Zoom gathering after his stepmother died of Covid-19 in April.

“I feared that such funerals would be alienating,” he said. “I was wrong. Wi-Fi carries the love quite effectively. In person, you can hold people’s hands and embrace them. On Zoom, it’s more about holding people’s eyes and simply being with them, in every way that matters.”

At the beginning of lockdown, Zoom ran into security issues. As the technology writer Brian X. Chen detailed in a column in April, weak privacy protections resulted in uninvited “Zoombombers” crashing meetings in embarrassing fashion.

That happened when my kids’ school district started distance learning: A nude man entered a virtual class and used racial slurs. It was a lesson for our family to be sure our event was password protected.

Even Jonathan Leitschuh, a software engineer and security researcher who identified flaws in Zoom’s security protocols that allowed hackers to take over Mac users’ webcams in 2019, turned to Zoom to plan a funeral for his mother who died in April.

“I went in terrified about a Zoombombing,” Mr. Leitschuh said. “I’d seen the same media coverage everyone else did.” But he said: “For this use case, I wasn’t aware of a better platform.”

There are several alternatives to Zoom, including Google Meet, Skype and GoTo Meeting, which may offer enhanced security protections and come with their own inherent trade-offs.

Funeral homes are also offering livestreamed services, in conjunction with limited in-person memorials. Chris Robinson, a fourth-generation funeral director in Easley, S.C., and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said his funeral home has been livestreaming services via its website, allowing anyone to attend without the need to download software or register for a videoconferencing platform.

“It’s important to go ahead and put together a virtual service,” he said, “rather than wait until the pandemic is over, because it could be a long time, and delaying indefinitely can be an ongoing trauma.”

In my family’s case, we were truly impressed by how videoconferencing, which can be so enervating in our daily work lives, enabled us to celebrate my dad’s full life in a beautiful and moving way.

If you have to arrange a memorial service on a video platform, here are some tips.

Go Pro

We purchased a one-month subscription to Zoom Pro (right now it’s $14.99 a month and you can cancel at any time). It allows for up to 100 participants (other plans allow for more, at additional cost), with unlimited meeting time, and stores a recording in the cloud. We’re glad we did. If we had had to limit the time of the event, we would have missed many moving contributions from participants.

Identify Someone to Handle Logistics

Because I created the account, I was the de facto meeting host. In hindsight I wish I had handed the role to my 17-year-old daughter, a digital native. Responsibilities include admitting people from the waiting room; muting all mics as appropriate; unmuting the officiant or other speakers; troubleshooting technical issues; providing assistance to guests; and passing messages along to family members in the chat box. Introduce the tech host at the beginning of the service, so people know whom to contact for help.

Familiarize Yourself With Platform Settings

The back end of video platforms have settings that can be tricky if you are new to them, especially if it is an emotional event. The host can go through the “toggle” switches in advance to figure out how to mute people upon entry or enable the waiting room, a security feature that keeps guests in a queue until the host admits them.

Who Will Lead?

Our virtual memorial succeeded, in part, because the rabbi wasn’t thrown off by the difficulties inexperienced Zoomers had muting themselves at the start. When the service segued into the shiva, my mother moderated — greeting people and making sure everyone who wanted to offer a remembrance had the chance to do so.

Plan a Dry Run to Anticipate Issues

Schedule one or more short practice sessions to work out kinks and make sure you’re on the same page about various roles. Some participants at our event were complete Zoom novices, fearful of missing the eulogy, and self-conscious about holding up the program as they attempted to mute as requested. We recommend offering tips to guests about logging on and off; muting and unmuting; switching screen views; and using the chat function — either along with the invitation, or on request ahead of the event. Don’t assume that everyone will be joining with up-to-date devices.

Invitations

We sent an email to notify friends and relatives of my dad’s death and of the Zoom event, including a link and password. Each of our family members compiled and distributed our own lists. You can also use Zoom to send email invitations.

You’re on TV (Sort of)

Without being obsessive, think about your on-screen appearance, makeup, lighting, camera height and angle and backdrop.

Beware of Tech Gremlins

While we were spared technical disruptions, the specter lurked in our minds. Many parts of the country experienced power outages this summer, and we’ve all had our internet connections go down or struggled with microphones and screens that freeze at just the wrong time. Although impossible to predict, be mindful of what could go wrong and how you’d handle it.

Ultimately, you want to make sure the virtual event accomplishes the same things an in-person funeral or memorial service would, honoring the life of the deceased and comforting the survivors. As it turned out, many more of my parents’ circle — friends and family in their 70s and 80s — were able to attend the funeral than would have been able to, even without Covid restrictions. Likewise, more people spoke than would have stepped to the lectern at an in-person funeral service. And the video we have is a blessing, which will enable my family to keep my father’s memory alive and hold on to vivid memories of those who so loved him.

Steven Birenbaum is senior communications officer at the California Health Care Foundation in Oakland, Calif.


Butter, Sugar and a Tablespoon of Grief

Ties

Butter, Sugar and a Tablespoon of Grief

At the darkest time of year, we bake our pain and loss into something to pass to others when it becomes too much to carry.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Dec. 25, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

For my mom, the weeks before Christmas exist solely for baking cookies.

She stocks up on butter all through the fall, buying pounds of it and filling her second freezer. When I was growing up in Illinois, it served as a shelf for all the Tupperwares of cookies to perch on in precarious stacks, staying fresh in the icy garage. Our pantry overflowed with bags of flour, brown sugar, pecans, chocolate chips.

Early one December morning I would hear the stereo start playing something awful — the holiday albums of Jimmy Buffett, Mannheim Steamroller — and know that it had begun. The stereo was never used at any other time in our house. I’d come downstairs, the light barely leaking through Chicago winter’s overcast dome, and find her apron-clad, dusted in flour, in a frenzy. I would use my tiny fingers to “help,” placing the Red Hot buttons on the snowmen, but mostly I got in the way. By the end of a day of baking my mom would be frazzled, exhausted, leaving me plenty of opportunities to pinch dough from the mixer, cementing my love of all things grainy, chewy, unbaked.

As I got older, I couldn’t understand this cookie madness. We weren’t little kids anymore, jonesing for sprinkles and projects. Surely she could scale back the baking. So many days of mixing and rolling and cutting and decorating, so many hundreds of cookies, arranged on plates and wrapped in layers of red and green Saran wrap, to be delivered by my dad to neighbors and friends on Christmas Eve, a day when most households are already saturated with sugar. What was even the point?

In this year of stalled time, of unending news and numbers of deaths, of hospital beds filling and conspiracy theories brewing, as December loomed I found myself desperate for something to get me through the year. My dad’s mom, Mary, my last grandparent, died during the fall after many terrifying trips in and out of the hospital with pneumonia. She never got Covid, but for months I lived in fear that she might. I tried to call her and rarely got through. During her memorial service, at a cemetery bordered by Route 17 in Dwight, Ill., her coffin took up one of the Zoom squares and the whine of trucks cut out the sound of the pastor’s David Lynch voice.

Two weeks after my grandma died, her daughter Carol died suddenly and unexpectedly at 63. Again, my family sat through a Zoom memorial service, clutching our grief through the screen. This death from afar had no paper program to fold or wooden pew to steady me or clammy hands to shake. No heady soap or perfume smells, no mothballs or bad breath. With these contactless funerals, it’s almost as if the deaths never happened. The memories can’t imprint.

Left cold by the bodiless, two-dimensional loss, I began retreating into the three-dimensional world. I inherited all of my aunt’s knitting, her gigantic collection of mohair yarns. Knitting, something I had tried and failed to learn years ago, re-entered my life as a balm when I most needed something to do with my hands. Studying the fuzzy yarn, the hand-dyed magentas and Smurf blues and chartreuses, the orange that is a dead match for two of our cats, I marveled at my aunt’s choices. I’d always thought of Carol as my favorite aunt but I suddenly saw how little I really knew her, and how much I wish I had. She mailed us all scarves she’d made for Christmas several years in a row, and I mocked them. Now I walk around the house draped in them, squeezing them, missing the very idea of closeness.

The holidays are a time of grief for many people, when losses bubble up and balk at the meager attempts we make at cheer. I’ve never gotten it before. In this, the year of no gathering, those who are long lost or suddenly missing seem to have shown up early. For the first time I understand the holidays as something I need to get through the year. I cling to the twinkle lights, the snowflakes, any semblance of sparkle.

As my state, New Mexico, locked down in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I found myself searching the internet for butter, sugar, flour, sprinkles, fearful I might not get the quantities I needed after the latest wave of hoarding began. My mom had already finished her first 48 nutcups, a family recipe for the tiniest pecan pies, and decided to skip the kolachkys, Slovak crescent pastries with jam in the center, the kind I hated as a kid. Soon she’d be pressing green almond dough into her spritz gun with green dyed fingers and enlisting my dad to help sprinkle the wreaths.

And I, meanwhile, have abandoned my computer, my responsibilities, my bathing routine, and am scrambling from the oven to the wire rack with tray after tray of gingersnaps, crumbling piñon rosemary shortbread trees, lemon sugar cats. I am pressing my hands into dough, relishing the slap of sugar aerating butter against the side of the bowl, the papery crush of chocolate as the blade of the knife slides down it.

The thing about grief, big and small, is that it’s ordinary. We carry our losses in our bodies, they say, deep in the tissues of our hips, our shoulders, and each new loss we experience calls up all our previous losses. We can dissolve some of this grief by moving, working it out, stretching it out, talking it out, crying it out, but can’t we also roll it out on a lightly floured countertop, shape it with our hands into something small and delicate and crisp?

All these cookies and cards and gifts are also ways we hand off our pain and our loss at the darkest time of year, bake it into something to pass to others we love, share it when it becomes too much to carry. My mom’s cookies are the way she remembers her mother, the only real grieving she seems to allow herself, once a year, music blaring, oven beeping, singing “How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?”

It is her chance to remember, a performance mimicking her mom’s, acting out her sorrow, dusting it with powdered sugar, dotting it with jam.

Like Penelope, weaving and unweaving night and day for her husband lost at sea, the only way I know to get through the year is to keep my hands moving. I’m not trying to busy it away, or ignore it, but to let myself feel it. The doing is where the feeling can happen.

When our bodies are busy our minds can rest, reflect in the repetitive motion. My need for projects is genetic. The squish of dough, the plush of wool in my hands are the best forms of solace.

I escape the dark days, snub my phone, and sink into mess, into tangibility, into texture, my glasses fogged from the oven and cellophane bags of cookies in each hand.

Jenn Shapland lives in New Mexico and is the author of “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers,” a finalist for the National Book Award.