Future Tense

In Praise of the Zoom Funeral

It might be better than an in-person one. Certainly, it is no less “real.”

Flowers sit on top of a wooden casket.
Mayron Oliveira/Unsplash

I went to my first Zoom funeral a couple of weeks ago. I had no idea what to expect. That phrase—“Zoom funeral”—sounds so tacky and degrading. Who would come? How would it work? What would people wear? Would we be gathering respectfully to mourn a loved one, or slouch on our respective couches, alone together, arguing with other family members at home about how to position the phone, tablet, or laptop screen, with the cat mewling to be fed?

“A Zoom funeral feels … like a travesty,” Violet Kim wrote for Future Tense in May. Until I went to one, I would have agreed. By the end of the ceremony, I had the opposite conclusion: A Zoom funeral, in many ways, might be better than an in-person one. Certainly, it was no less “real.”

At the appointed hour, barefoot but dressed in a suit and tie, I logged in from my attic office. This was no mere “memorial service.” The deceased, my father’s Uncle Larry, was there “live” on camera, albeit in a closed coffin. With him, at the Florida mausoleum where he’d be interred, were Larry’s eldest son, the son’s spouse, and a rabbi.

All three wore face masks. The couple and the rabbi sat more than 6 feet apart.

The rest of the screen filled in the now-familiar Hollywood Squares Zoom array. Soon some 50 households—approximately 80 people—had joined the service. Besides the two men by Larry’s coffin, I seemed to be the only one wearing a tie, but everyone was dressed at least to business casual standards, and some more formally. I recognized my parents first and then several of my father’s cousins and their children. Others I distinguished by last name or familiar facial features. Strangers. And yet my family.

Raucous cross-chatter—Jewish white noise—flooded my computer speakers.

“I’m going to put everyone on mute now,” the rabbi said, kneeling as he did so, at the same time admitting latecomers from the Zoom “waiting room.” “Otherwise, this risks turning into a Seinfeld episode.”

Even on mute, I could see others join me as I simultaneously laughed and teared up.

The service started. “We should be able to be physically together,” the rabbi said. “We should be able to hug and kiss one another. But through technology we are together spiritually.”

He instructed members of Larry’s immediate family in the ritual tearing of the black ribbon they wore on their shirts or dresses. He read Psalm 23—“The Lord is my shepherd …” And then, one by one, he unmuted the individual speakers: four grandchildren, two daughters-in-law, and two sons. Their stories over the next 40 minutes introduced me to a relative I’d encountered only three or four times and never spoken with alone. They highlighted Larry’s phone banter and the funny nicknames he bestowed. The shorts he wore to otherwise formal outings and his demand for cold butter at restaurants. His graciousness, generosity, and affection in times of need.

I laughed and cried, embarrassed but grateful that I could get up and grab a roll of toilet paper when my scant supply of tissues ran out. What hit me hardest was realizing that I had lost the last relative of my parents’ parents’ generation, save Larry’s own wife, Beverly, still alive but so gripped by Alzheimer’s disease that she was no longer cognizant of others. But I was also struck by the reminder that I had a host of second cousins I had never met, with children and parents roughly the same age as mine. And now I was meeting them, virtually but very much face-to-face, and in the intimacy of our living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and home offices instead of a more alien public setting. Close enough to see the books on one another’s shelves, the art on our walls, and the photos on our mantel.

Close enough to meet each other’s eyes.

Despite the severity of Beverly’s condition, Larry had been planning to travel with her from their retirement community in Florida to New York to be in proximity to their two younger children when his COVID-19 test came back positive. He felt OK at first, save a tell-tale loss of taste, he told my father when they spoke by phone following the diagnosis. In less than a week, however, he was gone. One of 157,000 Americans and counting to die from this disease. The first I knew personally.

Funerals, like every other aspect of death and dying, are typically siloed in our society. First, when seriously ill, we’re isolated in hospitals and sick rooms. Then, after we pass, our remains are deposited in cemeteries, mausoleums, and urns, or scattered to the wind or waves. Yet here I was home and with Larry—and at the homes of my extended family. The Zoom funeral left me feeling much more connected to everyone involved—and to everyone else who has lost a loved one during this pandemic. And it made me appreciate the ways technology like Zoom can make clearer our shared experiences—how it can literally show us all the other lives—and deaths—happening one “square” over.

The service concluded with the insertion of Larry’s coffin in a mausoleum wall crypt. He and Beverly had been married for 70 years. A few days after his funeral, she died herself, and her service—same rabbi, same son and daughter-in-law, same mausoleum—was exactly one week after his. This time I brought a full tissue box, plus plenty of water, with me to the attic. Speakers shared new heartfelt stories—and their faith that the loving couple was now together again. And so were we, at least for another hour.

Zoom life, pandemic life, is both awful and awe-inspiring. Given the remove in my relationship with Larry and Beverly and the distance between my home in Montana and theirs in Florida, it’s highly unlikely I would have gone to either funeral if they hadn’t been online. Now, 10 minutes after both, I had changed into shorts and a t-shirt and was taking a walk around my block.

On the one hand, it felt funny to be “back home” so quickly. On the other, it seemed fitting. Death isn’t elsewhere or extraordinary. It surrounds us, all the time, including our time online. On my walk after Larry’s funeral, I made out a baby crying in a house next door.
Then, from the firehouse a few blocks away, I heard an engine roar and the wail of sirens.

I took out my phone. “That was very moving,” I texted. “I love you.”

The reply came seconds later: “Yes, it was. I love you.—Dad.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.