One hears the most interesting things on NPR. A few months ago I was driving home from a program at the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando with one ear on the radio when my attention was caught by the words “online funeral.” My first thought was something along the lines of, “I know people are living more and more of their lives online…but this?”
Immediately followed by: “But doesn’t that take all the fun out of funerals?”
I realize that the second reaction does not necessarily redound to my credit. Funerals are, for the most part, solemn occasions, a time to express grief, for others to help bear the pain of final parting from a loved one, at least on this earth (depending on your level of faith)…a time to cherish memories and, hopefully, bring some measure of closure through the formality of procedure. I’ve been to my share.
But while I was figuratively scratching my head for a few moments there in my car, as the broadcast continued it became clear there was a deeply practical side to the idea of holding funerals online. As an article in the New York Times put it, “traveling to funerals was once an important family rite,” but with families now scattered far and wide, it’s hardly surprising that “watching a funeral online can seem better than not going to a funeral at all.”
It certainly made sense for North Carolina firefighter Ronald Rich, who couldn’t make the unexpected funeral of a friend due to the threat of snowstorm-induced road closure. His friend’s mother sent him an email invitation to watch the service online, which he did twice, first alone, then with his girlfriend. “It was comforting to me,” he told the Times, adding that he planned to watch it a third time with his fellow firefighters.
The concept of online funerals was a novelty to me, but I was even more surprised to learn that the technology to post them had been around for over a decade. It’s been slow to catch on even in the age of “YouTube society,” due to concerns ranging from etiquette to video quality, not to mention the fact that some attendees don’t want their images posted online. (Strikingly, the founder of FuneralOne noted that 94% of the funerals Webcast by his company were not password protected.) Yet while I wondered how many people would really want to relive a funeral experience more than once, viewers like Mr. Rich described the process as “healing.” In such case, we have another reason to be grateful for the gift of technology.
So what did I mean by the seemingly flippant remark “taking the fun out of funerals”?
Well, as I’ve witnessed, and not just in my own family, one part of the process that can go a long way towards reducing immediate sorrow is the after-service meal for those able to gather in person. There’s not only an abundance of good food (Tom Junod wrote a wonderful article for Esquire on this subject), but this tends to be the time when some of the best family stories are trotted out – as in the ones you likely never heard before because you were considered too young and innocent. You know the kind. Funerals can be eye-opening experiences indeed…but there’s a real catharsis in the group sharing of such tales.
Then there are the unexpected comments from bystanders. Years ago I described to a carpooling coworker how, at my grandfather’s funeral, a couple of elderly women whom I did not recognize, looking in my direction, stage-whispered:
Funeral Guest #2: “I think that’s his granddaughter.”
Funeral Guest #1: “Is she married?”
Funeral Guest #2: “I don’t know.”
Even at such a time, wondering what on earth my marital status had to do with the solemn memorial rite of one William O’Rear Kerns, I could not help being amused, as I told my coworker.
“That sounds just like a Polish funeral,” she remarked, launching into a hilarious impersonation of a similar incident in her own family. I still grin at both memories.
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How about you? Have you ever attended an online funeral? What do you think of the concept – do you find it comforting, impersonal, an inevitable development of living in a “YouTube society”? Have you found that some of your family’s most memorable stories are revealed after funerals? I’d love to hear your thoughts.