'We'll Skype you into the funeral'

Commentary: How the process of grieving for a loved one could start with a livestream.

I had about an hour to make the decision.

I was packing my bags for a three-week trip to Asia when the call came. My grandmother -- Mom's mom and our family's shining light -- had undergone emergency surgery. Doctors addressed one problem only to discover more. My grandma's frail body was riddled with so many tumors that even if she survived the recovery period, the end was unignorable.

She would have months at best; days, at worst. For a woman as strong, lucid and vibrant as our matriarch, we'd counted on years.

Amid this crushing realization came another reality: If I boarded that plane, I could miss my grandma's funeral entirely -- there wouldn't be enough time to turn around. My family urged me to take the trip anyway, for myself and for Grandma. ("How wonderful," she said the last time I had called her. "Learn all the languages!") But even the thought of traveling thousands of miles in the wrong direction made me feel hollow and disconnected, when every cell in my body yearned to be close to her.


The author and her grandma, November 2015.

Jessica Dolcourt/Photo by Rosaura Sandoval

"We'll Skype you into the funeral," my mom tried again as I lay crumpled on the other end of the line, ugly-crying into my hands. She was serious. If Grandma didn't make it, Skyping the service meant I wouldn't grieve in some anonymous hotel room alone. I managed a snort.

In fact, my mom's instinct about a video broadcast was spot on. In the past five or so years, numerous funeral homes and religious institutions have begun to routinely stream memorials to help remote mourners say their final goodbyes. Earlier this year, for example, an Atlanta-area megachurch streamed the funeral of its pastor so that members of his congregation could participate from afar.

Some funeral organizers even offer social media etiquette tips for family and friends who attend in person. And the genre of funeral selfies has cropped up, especially among the millennial crowd. Digital mourning, it seems, is going mainstream.

"You tend to associate video calls with a joyful moment, but you tend to have some emotional times on Skype," said James Blamey, Skype's director of communications. The company doesn't track the content of users' calls, but Blamey says video offers a stronger emotional connection than voice alone, and visual cues inform and comfort callers without the need to speak.

I couldn't shake the unbearable fear of missing my chance to see my grandma, possibly for the last time. So I did jump on a plane, one bound from California to Wisconsin, before heading to Asia. And I tucked my mother's Skype promise into the back of my mind. If I did have to remotely attend the funeral, I'd still be involved in spirit if not in flesh.

This made sense to me. My family already used Skype to stay in touch. For years, we had Skyped in a far-flung sibling and even Grandma herself to virtually join us for celebrations. If it came down to it, Skype would be one more way to connect to this most important family event.

In the end, a video broadcast was one of the few comforts I could extend when, six months later, I had to call that same far-flung sibling -- who wouldn't be able to join us in person -- with the inevitable news that Grandma was gone. "We'll Skype you into the funeral," I promised, our hearts breaking together.

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Tech at a funeral: Offensive or OK?

As our family dealt with logistics, I fretted over what Skyping my grandma's funeral would mean. Could I find a Wi-Fi network reliable enough to sustain multiple callers for the hourlong service? Would some family members be offended if I also streamed the graveside burial? Would I be able to hold a phone and mop my face with tissues at the same time?

These questions speak to the quiet role technology plays in mourning. On the one hand, Skype, chat threads and social networks help mourners connect to a community of friends and loved ones when they can't be physically present. On the other, smartphones and tablets -- often associated with selfies and status updates -- could be considered intrusive or plain poor taste when capturing mourners at the height of their grief.

"I don't see at funerals the same lurky electronic devices [as weddings]," said Rabbi Marc Berkson of Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But when families ask if they can FaceTime a graveside service, he always gives his blessing.

After all, funerals help the living grieve; technology simply allows them to participate no matter where in the world they are.

Livestreams bridge the gap

For the funeral homes and other houses of worship that do livestream funerals, the comfort it provides mourners is well worth the effort of making sure they get the cameras and audio right. St. Monica Catholic Community in Los Angeles, for example, uses robotic cameras to capture and transmit video without disrupting the service. (It also often employs a human director.)

Berkson, too, says his congregation has embedded cameras in the walls so that it can stream funerals and other events.

"Nine times out of 10, the family wants to do it," Berkson said of streams. "They're deeply grateful that they're able in some way to hear and see the ceremony in real time."

Josh Miller/CNET

In addition to streaming funeral services, some organizations, like the Coats Funeral Home in Clarkston, Michigan, go a step further, leaving a recording online for 90 days for playback. Many also record the memorial and give families a DVD they can play at home.

"Sometimes it's days after or weeks after the [funeral], where you're in the space where you can remember that experience and think about everything that was there," said Dan Houze, who coordinates Saint Monica's media ministry. "Sometimes the words that were said are forgotten."

Once we realized it was an option, streaming Grandma's memorial service felt like a lifted weight. Suddenly, we could focus on celebrating her memory instead of on the ins and outs of our DIY broadcast. But at my grandmother's graveside, where there was no streaming setup, I remained torn. Should I fully submit to the emotion of the moment? Or capture it on Skype to help others bid our beloved Grandma goodbye?

I was still debating what to do as we pulled into the cemetery and gathered by the grave.

"We need you," a relative said, gesturing to the hearse.

And in that moment, the final to-stream-or-not-to-stream question crumbled away. I was a pallbearer, now, with no fingers free to hold anything except the long oak handlebar of my grandmother's casket.

I shoved my phone deep into my jacket pocket and reached out with both hands.

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