Death at a distance: how virtual memorials help families mourn amid a pandemic

August 19, 2020

Family and friends came together online to celebrate the life of Jim Severine.


Six months ago, Diane Severine never imaged that she would be holding a virtual memorial service for her husband, Jim. But in the last few months, many families have had to pivot towards technology-based solutions to honor their loved ones who have passed. Since early spring, the world has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to lost jobs, cancelled plans and a moratorium on gatherings of over ten people in many areas of the country. We were uncertain how long it would be before we could have an in-person service for Jim,” says Diane, “so I felt a need to see if there was another option. I didn’t expect perfection – but honoring Jim’s life was paramount.”

What is a virtual memorial service? Using video and internet broadcasting technology, families weave together a live sermon with pre-recorded statements from family members and slideshows of pictures of the deceased set to their favorite music. All this can be live streamed and hosted on the internet for loved ones and friends near and far to view at any time, even if they are unable to attend the event.

“We were lucky to find a professional videographer who worked with Jim’s sister, Jim’s daughter and me to combine our family’s photos and recollections with Chaplain Dean’s amazing sermon to create something very meaningful.”

Still, some aspects of a traditional funeral are impossible to replicate in a virtual service. Nothing can replace being physically near the people we love during times of grief, but Diane noticed she didn’t miss a traditional funeral as much as she thought she would. “For me, the cards, the phone calls, and people’s presence after the funeral were what gave me strength.” 

An online service has distinct benefits which may extend its adoption beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.  The need to rethink the memorial service in general can lead to a more creative, personalized and individually meaningful ceremony. Friends and acquaintances from across the globe who might never have been able to travel to an in-person service are suddenly able to not only attend, but participate, sharing memories and reflections that might otherwise have gone unheard. The recording of the service can be made available to those not able to attend the live event, or who may want to revisit the ceremony. Other people’s comments about how they enjoyed the service made it even more meaningful to Diane.

Some families are combining a virtual memorial with an intimate in-person service for a small number of people. This way they benefit from the accessibility of the internet while still receiving the in-person support they need. In these difficult times, we are all doing the best we can to strike a balance between risk, safety and caring for ourselves and our loved ones. Virtual memorials may not be perfect, but they are no less real, and incorporate many of the same elements and rituals as traditional funerals. It is very difficult to accept different ways of doing things, especially something as personal and traditional as a memorial service” says Diane. “This may not be everyone’s acceptable alternative, but for our family, it turned out to be a real blessing – and in my heart, I know my husband was honored.”


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