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.”
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.
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.
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.