In mid-November, my great uncle on my mother’s side died of COVID-19. That weekend, my great aunt held a live virtual funeral on her Facebook page. It was my first funeral service since I was a little kid, and the first one that was held completely online. The experience made me consider how the pandemic has affected family gatherings, but also how virtual communities can make it easier for people to come together.
Growing up in the South, it seemed like I was always going to family gatherings. Every Christmas my parents would drive my sister and I from Florida to North Carolina to visit my mom’s extended family. My mom’s family is massive, and seemed to grow bigger every year with the birth of a new cousin or the marriage of a new uncle. To this day, I still struggle keeping track of my mom’s family tree and remembering everyone’s names.
My great uncle was the most talkative of the bunch. He would crack jokes or tell stories about his childhood. He would always greet me with a handshake so firm it would cause my knuckles to crack.
When my family moved to Massachusetts, I started seeing that side of the family less frequently. Our plans to return for a reunion in August were halted by the pandemic. Although we tried to compensate with a virtual meet-up on Zoom, there was still a strong sense of detachment.
2020 was the year that many of my family members got sick, whether from COVID or from something else. My biggest fear was how the pandemic would keep us from having a proper funeral. In order to stay safe, we would be forced to console our loved ones from a distance.
My great uncle contracted COVID in late October. He passed away a month later in the ICU after several weeks of intense treatment.
My great aunt announced on her Facebook page that the service for my uncle would be held on Saturday, November 14 at 1 p.m.. I didn’t know how to prepare, or how I should dress for the funeral. Since it was on Facebook Live, I didn’t need to use my camera. However, it still felt wrong to attend the service in sweatpants and a t-shirt. So, I combed my hair and put on some nice black slacks and a black dress shirt. That way, I was formal enough for a funeral, but casual enough for sitting comfortably at home.
The service was filmed by my great aunt, but she had accidentally flipped the image vertically. I had to tilt my head to the side in order to see what was going on. My internet connection kept going out, and I had to refresh the page about 15 times in order for the link to work.
Despite the technical issues, the service itself was incredibly moving. All of my great uncle’s children and grandchildren each gave beautiful eulogies, and nearly 70 people tuned in from out of state to watch the service. This gave me some hope for the future of virtual gatherings. Because the service was so easily available to watch, anyone from all over the country could tune in. You didn’t have to worry about paying for travel expenses or booking a flight at the last minute. All of the restraints that separated families were made easier. Virtual funeral services arguably bring more people together than in-person funeral services.
However, it still felt artificial. Much like with the virtual classes I took for school, I never felt like I was actually there. There was a large physical difference. I wasn’t free from distractions either. I became antsy staring at my screen for an extended period of time. I often felt tempted to open a different tab or scroll Instagram for no particular reason, just to occupy my mind. It was more like I was watching a movie rather than being at a real funeral service.
This experience made me realize that we all have to sacrifice our need for personal human interaction in order to stay safe. It will be a long time before we can see our loved ones again. It will be a long time before we can go to an actual wedding, a family reunion or a funeral. Yet the need for human interaction transcends any boundaries created by the pandemic. We will always find a way to come together, even if we have to do it virtually.
After the service concluded at 3 p.m., I wrote a letter to my great aunt and mailed it to her address. Sending a physical letter felt like the most personal gesture I could have done. One thing I’ve learned from moving to another state is that physical distance does not have to tear people apart. There’s always a way to stay connected with the people you care about.
Email Matt at [email protected]