Pamela A. Zeiser By: Pamela A. Zeiser
Associate Professor of Political Science
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19 Jun 2020 : Pandemic Realities: My First Virtual Funeral

My 96-year-old uncle Johnny passed away last week, not from COVID-19. He served in the Navy in WWII, married my mom’s older sister Pat, ran a dairy farm and other dairy-related businesses, and had a great sense of fun. Yesterday, I watched the livestream of his Catholic funeral mass.

I’ve read in recent months about Zoom funerals, memorials, and religious celebrations becoming common in the face of the pandemic. I understand the need but was skeptical of the value of technologically conveyed ritual. Funerals seem the epitome of the need to “be there” – to hug, hold hands, cry, and support one another. How could YouTube or Zoom substitute for that?

The camera was too far away, at the back of a church of well-spaced mourners, and the sound wasn’t great. Mostly we saw the backs of people and, when someone was facing the camera, they were usually wearing a mask and too far away to recognize. I could only guess who people were, assuming that my cousins, Johnny’s children, were the cluster in the front -- the only ones NOT social distancing. My skepticism was reinforced. To be perfectly honest, I started out multitasking: clearing up the piles on my desk as I watched.

The music started with the familiar hymn Be Not Afraid, sung live from the choir loft (based on the number of people who turned around and looked up). I started to feel emotional, but initially dismissed it as a lifetime of muscial conditioning. As the mass progressed, however, I felt more and more part of the event, rather than a distant viewer. Maybe that was because I wanted to “be there” and allowed myself what I needed? I stopped cleaning my desk. Over time I could better identify some of the people, and found myself thinking “Oh, that’s so-and-so; I’m glad they could be there.” I’d gotten used to the temperamental sound by the time Johnny’s son gave the eulogy and heard every word clearly. I laughed and cried at good memories he shared and learned more about a man I’d known my whole life.

It was unlike any funeral I’d been to before and yet like every other one. I’d rather have been there in person, of course, but technologically conveyed ritual was far more meaningful than I’d expected. Especially given that, even in the absence of the pandemic, I’d likely not have been able to travel across country for the service. I actually got more of an experience via YouTube than I would have, pre-pandemic.

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