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In the wake of coronavirus, families and funeral homes are livestreaming services

As large gatherings face cancellations, more funerals are going digital. What are the public health, religious and psychological implications to changing how we mourn?

Family and friends sign in and sanitize their hands as they walk in for the funeral for Helen Casey O’Rourke at St. Margaret Church on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Family and friends sign in and sanitize their hands as they walk in for the funeral for Helen Casey O’Rourke at St. Margaret Church on Thursday, March 19, 2020.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The Funeral Mass for Helen O’Rourke was serene, but her daughter Terri Fischer knew it was going to be hard.

It was being live-streamed on Facebook Thursday from St. Margaret Church in Narberth, and the Fischers sat watching on their couch in Switzerland, where they’re on lockdown.

Fischer, 55, who grew up in Merion, had bought tickets to fly home. As her mother lived her last days, new travel restrictions went into effect, including the mandate that Americans returning from Switzerland self-quarantine. Fischer, who hasn’t been tested for the coronavirus, weighed the chance that she could be asymptomatic and risk spreading COVID-19 to her family. With a heavy heart, she decided to stay in Zurich, where her husband works in the banking industry.

When she learned that she would be able to stream her mother’s funeral — a parish first — it lifted her spirits.

“Just seeing my family stand up and give witness to my mom was really powerful for me,” she said.

As larger gatherings face cancellation and postponement in favor of social distancing, life cycle rituals also face rearranging. With death, there’s the matter of how services will evolve as the pandemic spreads. Reports forecast that the U.S. death toll from the virus, more than 175 as of Thursday evening, will rapidly rise. The social impact alone is already changing how we say goodbye.

Lori Winter’s mother, Barbara S. Feldman, died following complications of dementia on March 11. Platt Memorial Chapels streamed the funeral service two days later on YouTube. On Wednesday, on her last day sitting virtual shiva, Winter logged onto the video platform Zoom at 8 p.m. and joined her rabbi and more than a dozen congregants from her synagogue, including family. Together, they read and sang Hebrew text from a daily prayer book, or siddur. The Bible, Winter said, doesn’t really have instructions for a moment like this.

“It’s unprecedented,” she said. “We had to make our rules.”

Each shiva gathering on Zoom took roughly 30 minutes, Winter said. She thinks her mother, a pilot and longtime educator, would have wanted things the old-school way. Were there not a pandemic, Winter believes she would have shared more memories with loved ones.

“It’s somewhat sad not to be able to be physically in person and have people and just sit around, with a lot of people in your home, and share stories,” said Winter, who plans to hold a memorial service at a later date. “At least we have the opportunity to connect and see other."

In a webinar Monday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials detailed best practices for the National Funeral Directors Association, including that memorials be limited to 50 people or fewer for the following eight weeks.

“If live-streaming and limiting attendance to immediate family is possible, we encourage that," said David Berendes, an epidemiologist at the CDC.

That same day, the White House published guidelines advising that Americans “avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people” through the end of March. Some local funeral directors said they were capping services to 10 or immediate family. Walker Posey, a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association and the owner of a South Carolina funeral home, said families have been understanding so far.

Others say these conversations can be difficult.

“Some people don’t focus on what’s going on around, as obvious as the coronavirus may be," said Jonathon Levine, a partner at Joseph Levine & Sons, a funeral home with multiple locations in the Pennsylvania suburbs. "They didn’t ever think they wouldn’t be able to attend a service with everyone they’d want to be there.”

Hassan Abdi, imam at Germantown Masjid, said his community hadn’t had such burials in the wake of the pandemic yet, but when when they happen, they plan to follow public health guidelines. Janazah prayers, he noted, needn’t be indoors and can occur with distance maintained between rows of mourners.

“We have objectives in Islamic law that are the preservation of life,” Abdi said. “Harm is to be averted.”

Researchers who study grief say that while the social aspects of funerals have significant therapeutic benefits, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for how a streaming experience changes the grieving process.

“I don’t think that any mechanism itself is negative or positive, it’s really how we use it ... and how people perceive its use,” said Heather Servaty-Seib, a counseling psychology professor at Purdue University.

Streamed funerals, like virtual cemeteries and guestbooks, aren’t new, Siena College social work professor Carla Sofka pointed out. Cyber funerals, Sofka said, provide access to those who would’ve missed out. Technology, she continued, is “redefining participation.”

Even those still coming together in person, Servaty-Seib noted, may be moving with caution when they touch hands or lean in for a hug.

“It’s almost as if people will make the best meaning of the ritual that they can at this point,” Servaty-Seib said. “But that it’s really important to remember that this is not a one-shot-deal — that ritual is ongoing."

At Helen O’Rourke’s funeral, John O’Rourke, her son and Terri Fischer’s brother, addressed a congregation of roughly 60 mourners and a digital audience that grew to 70 people. His mother, a devout Catholic who would have become a nun if his dad hadn’t come into the picture, raised nine children.

“Mom was not Lady Gaga. She was not a Kardashian. I’m sure you know those two. But let me tell you what Mom was,” he said in the eulogy. “Mom had a beauty that was far greater than any of them, because her beauty came from inside...."

Fischer jumped in on the feed’s comment section. “Chaunce,” she wrote, using her nickname for her brother, “you nailed it! As I knew you would :)”

The tablet at St. Margaret that was streaming the service didn’t show the congregation or the casket. That, she said, allowed her to focus more on the service and not that she wasn’t sitting there, surrounded by her family. She was moved hearing a song she had suggested, “Here I Am, Lord,” a hymn that played at her father’s funeral that still makes her teary. The experience wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be. Actually, she said, it was “cathartic.”

“It’s not only etched in my mind, but it’s also there. That will be on their [Facebook page] for us to go back,” said Fischer, whose large family is planning a memorial when she can return to the United States. “I think it’s interesting how memory plays and can wreak havoc sometimes on how events happen, and in this case, you have something that will always be there. For me, it’s edifying.”

Staff photographer Tyger Williams contributed to this article.