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My mom died in March. She was a lifelong Minnesotan, a farm girl who attended a one-room school. We haven’t been able to give her a memorial. What can I do?
Social distancing has made it increasingly difficult to give the dead a proper send-off.
Lee Stegner’s mother died in March, but she hasn’t planned a memorial service because of restrictions on gatherings and travel. The Portland resident wrote an obituary for her mother, Rose Marie Stegner, but the funeral home said to hold off publishing it until an event is scheduled.
So it remains on her computer — unpublished.
“Grieving is a very difficult process,” Stegner said. “I feel kind of alone with it.”
Her situation is likely shared by others, since more than 100 Minnesotans die every day. Funerals are still happening in the state with limited attendance — many funeral homes are even streaming them online.
But mourners can also host more interactive services and celebration of life events with the help of videoconferencing services like Zoom. That’s a new concept for many people but can be rewarding if done correctly.
“It was amazingly comforting and just really lovely,” said Raquel Counihan of the hundreds of people who attended her mother’s funeral on Zoom and who appeared as a sea of faces on her computer.
Some of them likely would not have come to an in-person service, she said, like her mother’s 85-year-old cousin from California who shared childhood memories with the crowd. Counihan expected to feel strange delivering a eulogy to the virtual audience.
“Once I started talking, it really felt like all these people were there with me in person supporting me,” Counihan said. “I got pretty emotional. It was surprisingly wonderful.”
The Star Tribune gathered advice from a number of experts on things to consider when hosting a virtual memorial service.
Think twice before putting it off: Anne Murphy, a celebrant who performs memorial services, said many people calling her want to host an event at a later date when daily life is less overwhelming.
“Things are in such upheaval. And then they’re also dealing with a loss. So the gravity of the grief is that much more,” Murphy said. “So I cannot [overstate] the importance of people doing something, regardless if it’s just a phone call with a group of people.”
Mortician Angela Woosley, also a celebrant, proposes having a virtual gathering now while people need the support, and another in-person one at a later date. “We don’t have to just remember this person once,” Woosley said.
Personalize it: Giving attendees a way to participate brings people together, Woosley said. That could mean everyone wearing the deceased’s favorite color, lighting a candle, singing a song, holding a hand-picked flower or even eating homemade chocolate chip cookies.
“You could also potentially even ask people to bring something to the meeting that reminds them of the person who died,” Woosley said.
People wishing to play music — solo or as a group — could record it on Zoom beforehand and present it during the event. “Not everything has to be done live in the moment,” Woosley said.
Select the tech: There are many videoconferencing services available, though Zoom is the most popular due to its ease of use. A free Zoom account has limitations, such as a 40-minute time cap and a maximum of 100 guests. But celebrants and funeral homes may have paid accounts with extra features like unlimited time and toll-free dial-in numbers.
There are also other services tailored to memorial services, like GatheringUs.com, which offers staff to help plan and run the event. For a more basic approach, it’s easy to create and manage a large phone conference call using free services like freeconferencecalling.com.
Help people join: Hosts should consider how people with less computer literacy will join the event. That might mean sending out a tutorial, or having younger family members do a “dry run” with those people to ensure they can log on, Woosley said. Zoom offers ways for attendees to call in to events using a traditional phone.
Leave a tribute: In place of a physical guest book, Rabbi Harold Kravitz asks guests to leave a note on a virtual one such as an online obituary page that has already been created. “Suddenly those pages...become more important than ever,” Kravitz said.
Have more than one host: Woosley said if a family prefers a formal event with readings and music, they may want to seek the help of a faith leader or celebrant.
Otherwise a grieving family will also have to be the emcee, Woosley said, which may be too much.
But regardless of who is involved, it makes sense to have more than one host. The extra person can help with behind-the-scenes work like muting and unmuting participants, or allowing people into the event from Zoom’s “waiting room.”
Change screen names: Before he begins a Zoom service, Kravitz asks guests to consider changing their screen names to reflect their actual names. People can also include their location and relationship to the deceased.
Schedule visitations: A virtual service doesn’t mean families can’t have private visitation time with mourners. Woosley said online scheduling services like calendly.com can be used to arrange short time windows for guests to visit with a family by phone or video conference.
“If people are worried about not being able to connect directly with people who want to express their condolences, that’s one way that you can address it,” Woosley said.
One speaker at a time: You don’t want a sensitive moment interrupted by inadvertent noises from someone’s microphone. Kravitz asks guests to remain muted unless they are the speaker.
Consider some security: Posting a link publicly could allow bad actors to infiltrate the event, as happened recently at a virtual north Minneapolis neighborhood meeting. “We’ve had to be really on guard about how we distribute [the link],” Kravitz said.
For a Zoom meeting, Woosley recommends using a password, a unique meeting ID and a waiting room. An online tribute page could request that people contact a particular person for the link, or it can be e-mailed to select people.
Record the event: Recording a Zoom meeting is as easy as clicking “record” on the bottom toolbar. After the meeting has ended, the program will create audio and video files of the event. “So if there are other folks who couldn’t make it or couldn’t connect, they will always be able to reconnect with that at a later time,” Woosely said.
Hosting a virtual event takes some work and is uncharted territory for most people. But it can have some surprising benefits over an in-person service.
Murphy noted that guests can see each others’ faces, for example, as opposed to staring at the backs of heads at a traditional service. And the event’s audience can be vast. Kravitz recently performed a funeral for a professor with an international reputation that drew 150 sign-ins from around the world.
“Obviously we would all much prefer to be present in person. But there are ways in which this has really worked,” Kravitz said. “This is a real tribute to people’s resilience and ability to find ways to meet their basic needs even under such difficult circumstances.”