How Apps are helping us celebrate life in the time of coronavirus

The empty Pentland Chapel of Mortonhall Crematorium

Everything is changing because of coronavirus, and funerals are no exception. Of course there are downsides – no hugs and kisses for anyone except for immediate family – but Tech and Apps are playing a positive role in consoling the bereaved.

‘I conducted the funeral yesterday of a 63 year old grandmother who came out as gay late in life. 

Her coffin was draped in the rainbow flag and the song chosen for the contemplation was “I Am What I Am” by Gloria Gaynor. It wasn’t the usual radio mix but the 12″ dance floor version and I remember thinking during the extended instrumental section how nice it would be if the congregation were up on their feet, but that was never going to happen: most of them were over 70.

There were 8 people with me in the chapel but more than 30 – appropriately socially-distanced – standing outside and listening to the ceremony over the loudspeakers. 

When I left, I overheard the funeral director telling the chapel attendant that the microphone wasn’t working properly.

I asked if I was loud enough, and he said, ‘Aye, you were fine but it didn’t matter anyway: they were all watching you on their phones. And dancing!’

I knew the ceremony was being webcast for the benefit of family and friends living out of town and overseas: what hadn’t occurred to me that at least part of the audience for the webcast would be less than fifty yards away. It really brought home to me how wedded we are to our phones.

Warriston Crematorium’s Lorimer Chapel in the time of Coronavirus

So much has changed around the way I do what I do in the last two months.

As a celebrant, I used to meet a family before the funeral to hear their stories: there could often be a dozen or more people present. The largest meeting I ever had was with 36 people in two different rooms and it took me almost three hours. Now as we aren’t allowed to meet in person, I speak to them over FaceTime, Skype or Zoom and sometimes – wow how old skool – the telephone!

I used to get most of the material for my script from that face to face meeting. Now almost all of it comes to me via text messages, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or email. Sandra – the lady whose ceremony I was conducting – actually took the time to make some notes about her own life, and they were scanned and sent to me by her family.

Because the group meeting simply isn’t possible any more, and because there is typically a fortnight between the death and the funeral, families are increasingly using that time to write down their own thoughts, which I think in some ways is even better.

My role is to speak for the bereaved, and the more accurately I do that, the better the ceremony. Having multiple contributions from family and friends writing from wherever in the world they happen to be allows me to create a richly textured, multi-faceted portrait.

In a recent ceremony for his grandfather who was a keen hill-walker, Tom wrote, ‘We would go for big walks up Arthur’s Seat, and to combat the steepness he explained his method: ‘just fall forwards into the hill, but bring your foot up in time to stop yourself – then bring your other foot to stop yourself again – keep doing that then it’s no effort at all’.

In Gina’s funeral, her daughter Dielle wrote, ‘I also remembers mum brushing my hair with her Grandda’s brush. She used to drag it through my hair and if I dared move, she’d take the brush and hit me on top of the head with it! I learned fast to stay still!’

The thing that’s really missing from every funeral is the reception – the chance to be with others, to hug and kiss, and reminisce. That’s the hardest thing and there’s nothing we can do about it, but there is an upside.

Even though we have to stand two metres apart, one of the good things about this extraordinary time is that we now all these Apps which allow us to get together: Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and of course, the webcasting technology that allows funerals to be seen around the world.

If you have to organise a ceremony yourself in the immediate future, I hope this is of some comfort. Until we can all stand together again, turn to the people who are still allowed to be close to you: hug them twice as tight, love them twice as much and remember that above all, it will be love that gets us through this difficult time.

and until then, if you want to get together, the app I’d recommend is this one: ‘House Party.’ Create an account, set a time and date, invite your friends, log on, raise a glass and start talking. Just not all at once…

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