It happened to me. A family member passed away just as his state was asking all funerals to wait two months. We were faced with the choice of waiting it out to grieve our loss and celebrate a life – or holding a digital memorial. Wait months on end to grieve, or try moving forward through a means often thought of as a cheap alternative.
We chose a Zoom conference call.
It was amazing.
Every family member found extraordinary value, from the youngest to the oldest. This was true for the technologically challenged as well as the video chat pros in our family. We laughed. We cried. We remembered. We celebrated. We joked. We sang. We watched a slide show. The gospel was shared.
In many ways it was more focused and memorable than a live funeral. In fact, it is the first I ever shed tears on and off through its entirety. I imagine one day when we get the opportunity we may do something face to face. Until then, we had a meaningful evening where it was obvious everyone got to move forward in life.
I suppose I loved the digital memorial because timing matters. No one had to stuff it in or try to suppress a loss. We were able to deal with grief.
So, here are a few insights I found that might be helpful:
1. Choose a platform that is accessible to everyone.
Our family used Zoom, which more than half of us had never used before. You might choose Skype or FaceTime for smaller groups. There is plenty of help available online to help the family understand whatever platform is chosen. Most families will have at least one tech-savvy person who can help everyone else set up.
2. Make sure the key family members are on board.
This is an important step. The key family members usually are the spouse, adult children and sometimes a friend of the family. Consider any caretakers who may need to be involved. At first mention, the online memorial option may not seem right to some. In our COVID-19 climate, remind them the choice is not doing a live or digital funeral. It is a choice of how long they want to go in the grieving process before having a service.
In this instance, the digital platform can aid emotional and spiritual forward movement that might otherwise have to wait. It does not mean a family cannot meet in person with loved ones later on. Once the key people are on board, encourage them to get the word out to anyone they see fit to include.
Another advantage of the online service is that there are no travel expenses. That said, a digital memorial might be more meaningful for a mid-sized group of 25 or fewer, who can see each other without having to scroll through pages of people.
3. Plan a date four or five days in advance.
You will want to give people time to understand and implement the technology needed to participate. During this waiting period, enlist key family members and friends who can help other participants with technology. Also, the key element may become the time of day rather than the day itself.
4. Plan out your time.
Create your service plan using pastoral practices before, during and after traditional funerals. This includes the time before a funeral, where pastors are typically learning about the person, which can be done together during the service. Plan to share a eulogy, sing, read, pray, play recorded songs, view slideshows, read poems and provide a sermon opportunity.
For special memorials involving military [personnel], you will find many quality videos of songs like Taps or videos of flag folding online.
A final major advantage is the digital memorial allows for a broader use of people. Think outside of the box when it comes to enlisting people for service elements. Your church may not have a musician, but maybe another would lend you one to jump online and play for the service.
The following points will provide extra details to consider for your service elements.
- Start out with ground rules. You will want to express the need for kindness. Ask everyone to make this the best experience possible and save difficult conversations for a face-to-face meeting or a phone call. It will be wise to set expectations of when it is acceptable to let young children leave the screen to expend their energy.
- Provide plenty of space for people to share. This element holds the potential to be the most meaningful part of an online memorial. When they see everyone on screen together, it will be moving in and of itself. It would be wise to ask one or two people ahead of time to share to get the ball rolling on conversation. It is possible that this element could take as much as 50-75% of your total time. Pastor, it is your job to facilitate this time together.
- Have someone sing to a track or play a song. This element was very profound and organic on Zoom. It felt extraordinarily personal. Computer and phone microphones will often pick up acoustic instruments and vocals well enough to do the job. Holding your phone to play a song into the microphone will do the job as well. During live performances it is helpful to ask all other participants to mute their microphones, or the sound from each individual will not be in unison and could be distracting.
- Give a simple gospel presentation. There is not an adequate way to express just how powerful this time can be. Is there anything more concrete than the death of a loved one to cause consideration of one’s own eternity and relationship with the Lord Jesus?
I was able to share the gospel with parts of our family I never thought possible. Everyone was gracious and gave me ample time to communicate from God’s Word. I simply offered my cell, email or the opportunity to pull me aside the next time we meet in person if they were convicted to respond.
A shorter sermon seemed to be more effective in the context. I would recommend keeping it around five minutes. In our memorial, I closed the message by asking everyone to describe the one we lost with one encouraging word. I will never forget the one-word descriptions from some of my family members.
- Utilize screen share to provide a slideshow. If you use a platform like Zoom, it is possible for someone to play a picture slideshow and have that person share the screen. During this time, you can play a song over any computer or phone to have everyone enjoy the visual along with sound.
- Give prayer a place. You can pray as you would at any other memorial, but you may also take prayer requests and pray for the people in attendance. This is a special touch of pastoral care often unavailable at a normal memorial service.
5. Consider recording it.
It was very special that I was able to forward a link to the recorded memorial to our family just minutes after we were done. When recording in Zoom, it is best to choose the speaker mode rather than the gallery view and record to the cloud for faster sharing.
6. Pastor, you will need to be more proactive in the planning.
Different pastors serve in different contexts requiring varying amounts of effort. Some pastors are used to doing all the work of planning, while others only show up to give the message. In the case of a digital funeral, provide someone to give personal attention to the family to ensure the digital memorial will be a good experience. While it is great to delegate, more personal attention from a pastor will mitigate the lack of being present in person.
Whatever the reason for not meeting in person, you can be confident a well-planned digital memorial does the job. Admittedly, this method will not replace the warm embrace of a hug, but you will receive so much more than what you thought possible online, and God will be glorified.
Lord willing, there will be days ahead to see those you love in person. When those days return, you will have the fond memory of the time your family met online because it was the best you could do at that moment.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Dave Carroll is worship and student discipleship associate for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.)