Clergy Adapt to Online Funerals, and Find Benefits

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By Neva Rae Fox

Funerals traditionally provide an opportunity to mourn and honor the dead, and to hug the living. During the pandemic restrictions on gathering, Episcopal clergy have been creative, gone to extreme efforts, and used every available tool to reach out to the families and offer solace to the bereaved. Zoom, YouTube, FaceTime, cameras, websites, online services, and social distancing in-person are among the methods tapped.

“For most of the time of the pandemic, our parish has seen a handful of deaths, none from COVID, fortunately,” noted the Rev. Jon White, St. Luke’s, Camillus, New York. “I think what has stood out for me is that what we do in the event of a death has been more varied in this period than any I’ve experienced in the past. One was a graveside service, less than ten people, socially distanced and masked. One family chose to not do anything at all. One was a small service in the sanctuary for family only in the short period when we could do that, and another was a service at a funeral home followed a week later by a very small graveside service, masked and distanced again.”

The Rev. Gillian R. Barr, of Calvary Church in Stonington, Connecticut, said,  “So far in this pandemic I have done my ministry at time of death via FaceTime. Ministry at the time of death in-person at home bedside when virus numbers were very low in summer; graveside; graveside with Zoom; funeral inside church with just family, and others via Zoom and some standing outside and listening through open windows; and burial at sea from a rented water taxi.”

“We’ve a variety of permutations of the Burial Office to include Zoom, limited outdoor services, limited indoor services, graveside services, small committals in the columbarium and closes,” noted the Rev. Canon Holly Herring, Canon Precentor, Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix. “Also, we’ve done diocesan memorials, and have some celebrations/burial services ‘on hold.’ Our attendance has included as few as four in a columbarium to 50+ in an interactive live Zoom funeral.”

“I have had two in-person funerals since COVID began,” said the Rev. Ed Zelley, St. Luke’s, Metuchen, New Jersey. “The normal diocesan protocols were in place. We did broadcast the service on our YouTube Channels and Facebook pages and that was well received. I have also done a couple of committal services in our Memorial Garden, again with social distancing guidelines in place and broadcast on YouTube and Facebook. I do have several folks who are waiting to be buried, obviously cremated, for when they can have the kind of service without attendance limits.”

“I’ve done a graveside funeral, which we livestreamed for the family using a small camera,” said the Rev. Ryan Paetzold, Priest-In-Charge, Sts. Stephen & Barnabas, Florence, New Jersey and Associate, Christ Church, Bordentown, New Jersey. “It went well. There was immediate family who weren’t able to travel because of quarantine restrictions, other family that don’t feel safe leaving their house, so it worked well. Additionally, the widower asked for a copy of the remembrances he shared, which was easily done because of the camera.”

At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, a funeral that would have been marked by a large event was put on hold. The Honorable David Dinkins, the first African American Mayor of New York City, died November 23. Normally, a funeral for a former mayor would attract city, state, and national dignitaries, officials, and notables.  But during the pandemic, the Rev. Patrick Malloy, subdean, reported there were a mere 10 people at his funeral.

“It was not a Eucharist. It was the Prayer Book burial rites. A 15-minute committal service, following diocesan and government guidelines,” Malloy said, adding that he anticipates a public service honoring Mayor Dinkins at some future time.

During the pandemic, comforting elements such as music must be eliminated or altered. “For the one we held in the sanctuary, we couldn’t get a musician because none felt safe and I don’t feel I should make anyone do something that feels unsafe to them, so we used pre-recorded music which worked out fine,” White explained.

Most seem open to the idea of a new way of doing funerals, embracing a novel method to honor their loved ones.

The Rev. Mike Angell, rector, Holy Communion, University City, Missouri, is supportive of on-line services. “I’d say they’ve worked.”  Using YouTube, with the choir recorded, Angell said, “Families have reacted really well, with a lot of gratitude. We also had a full Zoom service in May when our bishop’s order did not even allow us to broadcast from the church – we couldn’t go in the building for any reason other than to check mail.”

Angell added, “In all cases the Zoom reception after the service has been really remarkable. Folks from all over the country have attended. Family have really responded well to finishing those Zooms with a breakout room specifically for family and at one service another for high school friends from back in the 50s in Texas.”

Some have expressed deep gratitude for the ability to say goodbye despite the pandemic. “We just did a Zoom memorial service for my son of 44 years old,” said Grant Fraser, Trinity, Princeton. “He was in Berkeley, California. We live in New Jersey. It was amazing how many folks tuned in from around the world. Even when we get back to live or in-person services of all variety, having folks participate when even normal travel would be too expensive or otherwise impractical, some sort of Zoom service might become almost a necessity to keep everyone connected.”

Devar Burbage of St. Francis, Potomac, Maryland, agreed to an on-line funeral for his wife. “It worked wonderfully well,” he said. “My family is kind of scattered all over the place. It allowed my family to see it live.”

The church was limited for live attendance; Burbage was allowed to invite only 18 people. However, thanks to Zoom and YouTube, more than 550 have viewed the funeral, and “that’s just computers,” Burbage pointed out. “The online service was amazing to me since for a couple of weeks afterward I would still be contacted by people.”

In a twist of life, Burbage built the plexiglass enclosure surrounding his church’s pulpit, “never knowing I would be using it later on,” Burbage said.

While there is no “how-to” for online funerals, a guide was developed by the Rev. Sr. Miriam Elizabeth Bledsoe of the Order of St Helena, North Augusta, South Carolina, and the Rev. Jim Said, rector at St. Augustine of Canterbury in Augusta, Georgia.

Born out of necessity, Bledsoe’s loss of her mother prompted “Things to Consider When Holding a Funeral Over Zoom,” which offers suggestions and considerations for funerals online or through social media. “While we wish such practices were not necessary, we also recognize that the need for pastoral care continues even, and especially, in these days of physical distancing and limited travel,” the document details.

“Our Zoom gathering was family only, a conscious choice at the time, and the in-person gathering will be the opportunity to gather with others who loved her as well,” Bledsoe said, adding, “I’m very aware that for others the Zoom funeral will have to be enough because that’s all they will have and if, for some reason, that is all we have, it will be enough.”

Likewise, the Rev. Kevin Pearson, St. Luke’s, Renton, Washington, offers an online 30-minute funeral service, complete with community chat, scheduling, obit, fees, and other options. According to the website, “Our online funerals reveal the rich, time-honored Episcopal burial service, personally adapted for each funeral. Seasoned officiants, expert musicianship, and clear and soulful readers give voice to sacred text and prayers.”

Knowing the impact and the emotional and spiritual needs for funerals, clergy have been reflective on lessons learned.

“One of the things these small services, even though they are brief, have allowed for an intimacy that might not have occurred in a large service,” Malloy said.  “Feeling intimacy and intensity in a smaller setting.”

“Honestly, I’ve found a couple of the Zoom funerals to be humbling and profound in their intimacy — an opportunity to gather for those who would not have been able to gather anyway,” said Herring. “It certainly has confirmed for me that even after we come ‘through’ whatever this time period is, that we need to revise what it means to be gathered as the body of Christ and knock down the doors that keep people from hearing the proclamation of the Gospel of the Resurrected Christ in the fullness that God intends.”


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