Early in the pandemic, science writer Jack El-Hai attended his first Zoom funeral. El-Hai lives in Minneapolis, and the service was in New Jersey, but what unfolded will be familiar to anyone who has participated in such an event: A clergyman standing by a grave, his words occasionally inaudible because of the wind or the conversations of unwitting mourners who had forgotten to mute. Also, many shots of people’s ceilings.
The apex—or, more aptly, the low point—occurred midway through the service, when a photo of a topless woman astride a motorcycle filled El-Hai’s screen.
When the clergyman reappeared about 10 seconds later, a contrite woman spoke up.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m using my granddaughter’s laptop, and there are all kinds of things on here.”
Foibles are a fact of life at virtual gatherings. Often they’re so entertaining they morph into memes (see “I’m here live, I’m not a cat”). But at an end-of-life ceremony such as a funeral, memorial, or shiva service, they’re as welcome as a stalled car on a busy highway.
Advance planning and common sense can go a long way toward ensuring that the service you host or attend will be remembered for who it honored rather than a guest’s raunchy photo (or ear-splitting feedback, a telephone ringing in the middle of the 23rd psalm, or any of the other myriad mishaps that can occur when humans interact with technology).
To help you better understand what that planning should entail, we’ve reached out to etiquette experts, members of the clergy, a funeral director, and the CEO of Sympathy Brands, who registered the name “Viewneral” last spring when it became clear that, along with masks and social distancing, virtual funerals weren’t going away any time soon.
Designate a Host Who Isn’t in Mourning
“I think the biggest mistake or challenge is that family members take on more than they should at that particular time,” says Michael Schimmel, CEO of Sympathy Brands. “Finding the right person to be the actual host is critical. We always encourage the mourning family to focus on grieving and suggest someone else be responsible for the technology.”
The host is able to control the microphone and screen-sharing, keeping guests muted unless it’s their turn to speak, turning off the microphone when someone goes on for too long, and ensuring that no inappropriate pictures will interrupt the event. In essence, the host is the virtual version of the usher who ensures decorum at an in-person event by asking guests to turn off their cell phones and escorting them from the premises if they misbehave.
Give yourself plenty of time before the service starts to download whatever platform is being used. Make sure your camera is working. If you’re speaking, check your microphone settings. If the service starts at 10 am, log in 5 to 10 minutes early to make sure the host has time to let you in.
“There is no excuse for being late anymore,” says Thomas Farley, aka Mister Manners. “It’s one thing if you’re driving around and trying to find parking and in an unfamiliar area you’ve never encountered before, but if you’re not even leaving your household there is simply no excuse for not being on time.”
Jerry Sorokin of Iowa City really was driving around looking for a parking space before a virtual funeral for a friend’s mother last fall, but that’s because he’s an Amazon deliveryman and couldn’t afford a day off. His friend had asked him to chant one of the most important prayers, and he was determined to honor the request. The prayer came late in the service, but Sorokin made sure to be present the whole time.
“I was able to take my lunch hour at 2 o’clock, when the funeral was,” he recalls. “I pulled off the road into a gas station parking lot and set up my phone so I could participate in the Zoom funeral, and when it came time, I chanted at the steering wheel.”
There’s no sneaking in at the back when the funeral is online, Farley points out. “This is something that will be noticeable, especially if you have your camera on. If other mourners have their screens set to gallery view, you will be seen.”
Keep Your Camera On
Sympathy Brands has been providing technology for virtual end-of-life rituals for nearly a year using “Viewneral,” a platform the company customized to simplify the way people can host and attend an interactive funeral online. Schimmel is unaware of any established protocol for webcam use, but he advises keeping your camera on unless the bandwidth is inadequate or you’re calling in on a phone.
“It helps to personalize and can show a certain level of respect,” he says.
Funerals are intended to provide a sense of community, a tangible expression of support for the deceased’s family. That’s all the more reason that the host should ask participants to please keep their cameras on, says etiquette expert Elaine Swann.
“This is a very sensitive time for everyone involved,” she says. “If you’re going to join in and can’t join in with your camera, you might want to sit this one out. We’ve already lost a loved one, and for those who are there, it can be a little disheartening for the folks who are experiencing that loss not to see everyone. Folks don’t know what you’re doing, and if no other time than this, you should be completely present for the occasion.”
As Farley says, “If you look out and everyone has their cameras turned off, that does not feel like a community.”
You may be watching from home (or, like Sorokin, from the cab of an Amazon delivery truck) but you’re still attending a formal, solemn event.
Farley’s advice is to dress as you would if you were attending in person. “Just because you’re watching from home does not give you license to show up on camera in sweats and a T-shirt,” he says. “You dress solemnly, you dress in more somber colors, and something that shows you put some time and thought into your appearance that day, that you didn’t just roll out of bed moments before flipping open your laptop and logging onto the URL for the funeral.”
The dress code for a memorial service or shiva is less formal, but show respect for the occasion, says Diane Gottsman of the Protocol School of Texas. “Even if it is a celebration of life and the mood is meant to be livelier, ask the family before wearing a T-shirt with the deceased’s picture on it, or a Hawaiian print shirt because he or she loved to go to Hawaii.”
Heather Young-Leslie, an anthropologist in Edmonton, Canada, describes her first Zoom funeral as being akin to watching the service from the choir loft—she didn’t have to face crying mourners or worry about crying in public or how her facial expressions would affect others.
One way Young-Leslie’s experience differed from sitting in the choir loft: “I could be paying attention, but I could also be doing other things in my house.”
Pretty much anyone who has attended a virtual event has been tempted to multitask, but doing so during a funeral is a no-no, says Farley, who recommends shutting down other applications, turning off text notifications, and silencing your phone or putting it in another room.
“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.’”
Schimmel agrees. “A lot of this technology previously existed, but when it came to end-of-life, its application was never fully realized. Philosophically we believe it is never good to force adoption, and we are also big on the fact that nothing can or should replace a hug. It is a sensitive time, and if someone can be there, we encourage it. However, whether it’s age, health, geographical distance, economic means, the nature of the relationship, or not being able to take off from work, the ability to virtually be there is huge.”