Mourning in the virtual space: Planning an online funeral

4 min read

Tips for planning an online funeral

  • Make sure you have a good, fast, and reliable internet connection where the service will be held. Funeral homes will generally have the right setup, but other locations may not.

  • Designate someone other than the funeral officiant to run the technical aspects of the online session.

  • If friends and family in other locations will be speaking or presenting, make sure they test out their connection and setup as well.

  • It's a good idea to have a test run, which can also be an opportunity to gather as a smaller group and mourn together.

Losing someone is always hard. In recent times it has been even harder for many of people due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Being unable to gather in groups, or even reach out to family members for a hug, has made an already challenging experience even more isolating and emotionally draining.

If your loved one has recently died, you may be feeling a range of things in addition to deep sadness: guilt at not being able to be there for others in your family, frustration at the restrictions that are keeping you from mourning together, and uncertainty at how to best honor the person from a distance. These are very real and understandable reactions to a hard situation; be compassionate with yourself and let yourself fully feel your feelings. 

But also know that you are not alone in this. Many others, unfortunately, have been going through the same thing, and they have found that even if they can’t mourn with each other in person, connecting with and comforting one another virtually can make the pain a little less severe.

Video calls with friends and family can be a good way to feel almost like you’re there with them, to cry together, remember together, and be there for each other. And the videoconferencing software that the world has turned to for everything from work meetings to class sessions to talk shows can also be used to hold a respectful and moving funeral service for your loved one when you can’t hold such a ceremony in person.

When you’re ready to start thinking about the details of the virtual funeral, here are some guidelines and tips that you may find helpful. 

Setting up the online funeral

These days, funeral homes and religious institutions have become well-versed in the ins and outs of virtual funerals. If you are planning your loved one’s funeral with a mortuary or through your place of worship, contact them as soon as possible to inquire about their arrangements for online ceremonies.

Many funeral homes will have a good setup for such events, with cameras, microphones, lighting, and a high-speed internet connection. They may charge extra for use of these, and the kinds of services they provide may be limited, so make sure to ask about this up front. 

Only some houses of worship have similar equipment; you may end up having to set up your own camera and mic, either there or at a family member’s home. (Most religious institutions will, however, have excellent resources to help you plan the ceremony.)

Wherever you are holding the service, make certain you have a reliable and fast internet connection and an appropriate space to broadcast from, with good lighting and sound. You do not want anyone to have trouble hearing or seeing, or the feed to cut out in the middle of the proceedings. The smoother everything goes, the more the attention can be focused on important things, like memories of your loved one, rather than technical issues.

It’s generally a good idea to designate two separate people, one to officiate and one to run the online session. The first will conduct the ceremony, give the opening remarks, and introduce each speaker and part of the service. If it is a religious ceremony, this may be your pastor, rabbi, etc. Or it can be a family member or friend.

The other person will work behind the scenes making sure all of the technical elements work, cue up any presentations, and help with any technical problems that may arise for guests, via chat or text message. Many people find that a close family friend is best suited for this second role, but any tech-savvy family member can do it as well. 

Inviting remote funeral guests

Send invitations via email, so that you can provide a link to the service itself, as well as detailed technical instructions for those who need them. Include a schedule for the event and instructions for how to arrange one-on-one time with members of the family.

For older relatives who may not be familiar with the technology, it may be a good idea to assign someone to help them out. This person can have a short session with them sometime during the few days before the funeral to familiarize them with the conferencing software. If the person who is hosting the online session can do this, that is ideal. (It’s also advisable to give a brief technical introduction before the ceremony, either as part of welcoming remarks or before you begin.)

Make sure to specify very clearly in the invitation that attendees will be expected to have their cameras turned on, and that they should dress for a funeral and comport themselves as they would for an in-person ceremony. As grief expert David Kessler says, it shouldn’t make any difference that the service is online; everyone needs to understand that this is a special event that means something. “You can’t multitask this funeral. You can’t casually be there. You can’t just decide to casually tune into a funeral.” Your guests will get the message and treat the event with the solemnity it deserves.

Many funeral homes will have a good setup for such events, with cameras, microphones, lighting, and a high-speed internet connection.

The schedule of the event

The elements of an online funeral are the same as one you would hold in person. Most include some combination of welcoming remarks, readings from scripture or poetry, songs or hymns, and eulogies and other speeches of memory or tribute. Online funerals also allow you to share audio-visual material, like slideshows, home movies, or pre-recorded tributes, easily via screen-sharing. These are great ways to use the technology to memorialize your loved one and to make everyone feel included.

If multiple people will be giving speeches, doing readings, or singing songs from other locations, ask that they make sure they have good camera/mic/lighting setups and that they test them out.

It is generally a good idea to do a test run of the ceremony with everyone who will be participating, to work out any technical issues and get a sense of timing. This might feel somewhat awkward or even disrespectful to your loved one. Try to keep in mind, though, that this ceremony is not for them, but for you and your guests, as a way to remember the person and keep them in your hearts. The smoother it is, the better a tribute it will be.

In addition, if you cannot all be together in person, this rehearsal can be a time to gather online in a smaller circle, before a ceremony that includes a wider community of friends and family. The first time you practice your eulogy in front of others, you may find yourself overcome with emotion, and limiting it to this small group as you rehearse can be a special moment to cry and comfort each other.

Another important element of some funerals is visitation, one-on-one conversations between members of the family and your guests. Though the ceremony itself will be one large event that everyone will be watching, people will also want to communicate their condolences personally (and the online text chat offered by most videoconference software does not stand in well for this).

Luckily, most of these programs make it easy to schedule one-on-one meetings as part of the larger call. You can invite your guests to sign up for time slots with individual members of the family, whether before the ceremony, afterward, or on a separate call that same day.

Finally, be prepared for something to go wrong. It almost certainly will, and that is OK. No ceremony is perfect—including in-person ones—and nobody expects this one to be. What is important is that you give your loved one a fitting tribute and give the people who cared about them a chance to gather and memorialize them. A few technical hiccups won’t take away from that.

Though this is a new situation that has its drawbacks, video funerals have some advantages too. For one thing, people who live far away will be able to attend. As you look out at the grid of faces, all there to pay their respects to your loved one, you will be able to see all of them calling in from their own homes, and visualize how one departed life has touched all of them where they live, spread all across the world ●