Virtual funerals: honouring a life in times of COVID-19

Online funeral service led by Rosalie Kuyvenhoven, London based celebrant
Sample personalised openings screen of a virtual funeral service

Funerals and grief in times of COVID-19: Zoom funerals

The COVID-19 pandemic is turning our lives upside down, including death, funerals and grief.

Holding a hand when someone dies, a hug, a good cry on a shoulder or gathering with others around the person’s body to mourn and to share memories – these and other tactile, physical and social ways to comfort each other are not possible.

We are not only mourning a death but also mourning that we haven’t been able to say our goodbyes. 

Many people consider having a memorial service when the pandemic is over. This is a wonderful option to celebrate a life and will help at a later moment to share feelings and memories. However, no one knows yet when this will be possible. 

It is important to find ways to express grief and love with others at the time of a person’s death. Sharing the experience of the person’s death and all that they means to you with others can be healing.  

A virtual ceremony, led by a competent celebrant offers a structured, meaningful way to come together to mourn a death and share special memories. 

How does a virtual ceremony work?

The ceremony happens via Zoom, an online platform provides a safe and user friendly environment for people to gather virtually.

Online funeral: personalised ceremony space
Example of how to the celebrant’s ceremony space can be personalised

Just like a traditional funeral, we follow a structured approach. The service starts with a welcome address, followed by a eulogy or personal tributes from family and friends. One or more poems or readings can be included as well as some fitting music, a video or a slideshow. We can also include one or more symbolic rituals, such a lighting a candle, raising a glass to someone’s life or asking people to wear a favourite colour.  

As your celebrant I will lead the ceremony. I will wear a professional outfit and prepare a fitting ceremony backdrop. During the service I can hand over to family members and friends to read poems, share tributes or even play live music. People who are not talking will be muted so we will have minimum distraction from background noises.

At the end of the service I will close the ceremony after which family and friends, if they wish, can continue with a virtual wake: a more informal gathering where memories and stories can be shared. 

The ceremony can be recorded as a keepsake or to share with people who could not attend.

Zoom funerals: ceremony design and preparation

As a preparation to the ceremony I will liaise with a select group of people: usually members of the direct family, but also close friends or other people who were significant to the person can be involved. Meetings happen virtually. For example, a WhatsApp group can be set up to share memories, photos and music options. Together we prepare a ceremony that reflects the person’s personality. 

I write a script and prepare readings, tributes and music with all involved. A digital order of service can be created and sent to all participants so they have an idea of what to expect.

A few days before the ceremony I set up a Zoom Meeting. The family sends the ceremony link and password to the people the would like to invite.

The day before the virtual ceremony we have a test session with a select group of people (close family/friends and people who are doing a reading or tribute) to make sure everyone can log in, make them familiar with the platform and test readings, music and, if these are part of the ceremony, slide show and videos.

Zoom funeral: on the day

On the day, people may wish to wear something special to honour the person. They may also light a candle, have some flowers, a photo or an object with them that reminds them of the person.

On the day I prepare the ceremony space. I also make sure music, slides and any other ceremony content is ready to share.

Participants will be advised to log in ca. 10 mins before the ceremony starts to solve potential login issues and check sound and camera settings.

Phones and background noises will be muted to create a space of focus and dedication. 

At the set time, I will open the ceremony and lead the proceedings, handing over to others who are doing a reading, share a tribute or play live music.

At the end of the ceremony I will say some words or closure. If desired, I can then hand over the role of host to someone else should the family wish to continue with a virtual wake.

Some additional thoughts and things to consider

  • A virtual funeral can not replace a physical get-together and people may have strong feelings about this option. It’s important to validate these and to include possible concerns as part of the opening words.
  • Zoom is not perfect and people may struggle logging in or may face connectivity issues. A test session beforehand may help solve problems.
  • People who do not have the option to download Zoom, or who are facing issues with their connectivity, can dial in to the meeting using their phone. Although they won’t have the visual experience it it an opportunity to them to connect and share their thoughts too.
  • The session can be recorded and sent to the family after the service. It is important to let participants know beforehand that this is happening and if they don’t wish to have their faces recorded they can turn their cameras off.
  • A Spotify, GooglePlay or iTunes account allows to you play music for personal use only. To play music in a public space you need to purchase a public performance license. I have a license to play or stream music during a ceremony so if I am hosting this has been covered.

I hope this article has been helpful. If you have any further questions or would like to talk about having a virtual funeral service, please get in touch.

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