My First Memorial Service was on Zoom

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Preliminary note: Frequent readers of the Willow blog like yourself are likely accustomed to hearing from Founders, Michelle Pante and Reena Lazar. Today, Willow lends this space to Michael Despotovic, from the Willow marketing team. If this blog post resonates or offers you something as a takeaway, be sure to let us know in the comments below, or on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram).

My first memorial service took place on Zoom, just a couple weeks ago. We were honouring the life of a dear friend from my church, who died of complications related to a cancer he had been living with these last few years. I suppose I’m fortunate to have gone through nearly thirty years of life without anyone close to me dying. In fact, I’ve only been to one funeral, that of someone I can’t say I knew very well. This is all to say, I still feel quite new to realities of mortality and the rituals that fall under what we at Willow call “Departure Directions.”

Getting into the Memorial Service Mindset on Zoom

My newness to memorial services was compounded with the newness of memorial services on Zoom, the video conferencing software many of us have had to learn in 2020. On the one hand, I’m quite proficient with Zoom—I’m the Zoom host and coordinator of every fourth church service on Sundays, I use Zoom daily for my work and I helped co-manage Willow’s 7 Tools for Making Sense of Life and Death webinars. On the other hand, I had no special role in this memorial service. I was merely a participant.

There on my screen, instead of looking at the pulpit or lectern, I watched as the main Zoom panel was on “spotlight” mode, featuring, one-by-one, from inside their own homes, the selected speakers of the service—friends, family, a former student. At first, I had a hard time getting into the mindspace of being at a memorial. But then a couple of things happened that hit me to my core, and by the second half, the tears began to flow freely, as my grieving process began to unfold.

3 Ways Zoom Enhanced My First Memorial Service

Thanks to my first memorial service being on Zoom, I’m grateful I got to experience the following moments, which I feel like were unique to this virtual memorial:

  1. The sharing of music that transported us in space and time.
    Without the ability to sing hymns together in a physical space, we were gifted with the ability to listen to a song that the deceased and his wife sang together on their wedding day. By using the “share computer sound” function of Zoom, we were transported to 1966. The quality of the sound was so perfect it gave me goosebumps.
  2. I could read the live feed of “guestbook” entries in real-time.
    Instead of the pen and paper guestbook that may have a long lineup and allow for writing only, we used Zoom’s chat function to not only place our words of encouragement and reflection, but also to read all the wonderful things shared by everyone else. Because the Zoom service was recorded, all the chat comments were automatically saved into a file that the family could adapt, print, and access at any time as part of their process of honouring and remembering.
  3. I felt a visceral sense of community in the multitude of faces “facing me”.
    Along the right-side of the Zoom window was what seemed like an unending column of people from around the world. But instead of all of us “facing” the front of a room, as I figure would be the case in an in-person memorial service, it was almost as if we were in a circle, all facing each other. As someone new to memorial services, this was comforting in a way I can’t fully describe.

Besides these three comforting attributes of my first memorial service, I also noticed plenty of other—perhaps more practical—aspects that I can share. After all, without the need for air travel, the memorial was more inclusive to people with disabilities or financial insecurity. The family needed no budget for catering or memorial stationary. No distracting noises, such as fussy babies, coughing guests or side conversations were heard. In fact, I imagine those with hearing aids could hear the memorial service better, thanks to Zoom. The list goes on, but for me, I think the best feature was the ability for me to turn my camera off, and given that my audio was already on mute, I felt permission to cry and grieve openly.

What Celebrants and EOL Planners Should Think About for 2020 and Beyond 

This whirlwind of year that is 2020 is certainly changing a lot of the rituals and practices that some of us have come to know and expect. As for me, I had no memorial service blueprint to follow, nor could I compare this digital experience with one that was in-person. So while it’s possible that this digital transition to Zoom could lose or leave out some tangible characteristics of a memorial service, I’m quite relieved and appreciative of all that my first memorial service gave me.

Finally, it’s also quite clear to me, as someone who works with digital tools and has seen firsthand the sharp turns and rough pivots that organizations are taking to adjust to the new normal, that the hard work of funeral directors, celebrants, end-of-life planners and doulas, and home funeral guides are so very much needed in this unfamiliar landscape.


What about you? 

What has been your experience with virtual goodbye rituals during this global pandemic?

10 Comments

  • I so appreciate your blog Michael
    The image of all the participants in a circle brings such a feeling of a sacred ceremony…. Bringing everyone together whether they know each other or not through the knowing of the beloved they lost.

    I feel that if people decide on traditional funerals when allowed again my hope would be that they would also consider a ceremony on zoom for those that cannot attend in person and for those who want a more intimate gathering.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Lyna. Indeed, what was will never be the same. Hopefully, our next expressions of honouring, remembering and grieving will be more robust and inclusive than ever before.

  • This is such an important post. We need to embrace creative solutions to critical end of life rituals that help sustain people through the difficult time of grief encumbered by social distancing. The Celebrant Foundation and Institute created a free guide to end of life options. We are happy to give away this report based on the input from 1500 celebrants across the globe. It is on our homepage http://www.celebrantinstitute.org

    • Thanks so much Elisa for sharing the guide produced by the Celebrant Foundation and Institute. Thank you also for the important work you to help people say goodbye, honour and remember their dead and begin to integrate their losses. We are so delighted to facilitate creative, collaborative solutions.

  • Paula Marie Skalnek October 7, 2020 at 7:09 pm

    Michael, I enjoyed reading about your experience. You made a very good point that I have been wondering about – you were able to shut down the video to cry freely. Expressing grief, especially in a social setting, is something that many have not experienced. Culturally, it is borderline taboo for many North Americans. It is my hope that technology will assist us to honour end of life in more meaningful ways, allowing for a sense of safety to emote in private while remaining part of a group ceremony. Thanks for the post.

    • We share you hope Paula. I must admit, I’m delightfully surprised about what people are reporting regarding their experiences with online or virtual goodbye rituals. My assumptions about technology and its role in honouring our dead have been busted.

  • I have attended and led countless memorial services, but not one on Zoom as yet. I found Michael’s experience very insightful on the value of a Zoom memorial — all of them. Many thanks!

    • Dear Pashta, we are all so happy to hear that you found value in Michael’s post. If we are open to it, there is so much we an learn from each other. Thank you for all you do.

  • Thank you Michael for sharing your experience alongside your expertise with Zoom.

    As I plan our hospice society’s next Community Memorial Service, I will take your notes with me.

    Your blog entry has been super useful to me, and I’m so touched to hear how effective the technology was to bring a sense of connection between you and the other attendees of the recent memorial service you attended.

    • Thank you for letting us know about the impact of Michael’s post Tricia. It’s a beautiful thing to read about that pathways, sometimes unexpected, that lead us humans to connect. xo

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