The late Jonathan Adewumi was the kind of person whose church funeral, under normal circumstances, would have been a packed-house affair.
The owner of the Brooklyn-based Nigerian restaurant Amarachi, Adewumi was a staple in his community, so much so that many took to calling him “Uncle Jonathan.” He launched the Nigerian Film Festival to promote the rich culture of his birthplace and created a clothing line called Nigerian Fabrics and Fashions that counted Wesley Snipes and Stevie Wonder among its fans.
On April 17, he died of COVID-19. Instead of a hosting a vibrant celebration of life ― one where loved ones could come together, hug, and remember Adewumi in person ― his family put on a Zoom funeral.
Aside from being a video stream, the funeral followed the same beats of a traditional service, starting off with a prayer and followed by a soloist who sang a hymn. Guests hummed along, then took turns sharing their remembrances. (Given the size of the event ― nearly 500 people ended up calling in ― they had to sign up to speak in advance.)
“We were on the call for approximately three hours, and every minute was spent celebrating and honoring his life,” said Oswald Osaretin Guobadia, a business strategy consultant and close friend of Adewumi. “It was just emotionally packed. People really got to share what was in their hearts about Jonathan.”
Guests dressed to the nines, as they would at a non-digital funeral ― a formality that Guobadia admits he didn’t realize would be observed before calling in.
“I had casual clothes on when I logged in, but I quickly rushed up and changed into a formal African attire with shoes and cuff links,” he told HuffPost. “We were ‘there’ to honor a good man and friend, and it was imperative that we applied all societal norms for this situation.”
Guobadia is just one of the many people learning to pivot to Zoom funerals during the coronavirus pandemic. To slow the spread of the virus across the country, a number of U.S. states have banned gatherings of more than 10 people, including religious services like funerals.
That poses an incredibly difficult predicament for those who lose someone, whether from coronavirus or something else entirely: Do you wait out the restrictions and hold a traditional funeral when crowds are able to gather ― and in doing so, put off some of the mourning process ― or do you hold a digital celebration of life?
Many are choosing option two. Religious leaders we spoke to said many are still feeling an implacable need to gather, see and comfort others and bear the burden of the loss collectively.
“I’ve officiated many funerals, and most of the healing and comfort that occurs happens in hallways where funny stories are being recounted. It happens in a physical embrace of a trusted loved one. These are things that Zoom cannot necessarily replicate.”
– Mike Signorelli, pastor
An online funeral may be a half-measure, but it provides some of that closure, said Mike Signorelli, a pastor in the New York City borough of Queens.
Signorelli recently officiated a Zoom funeral for a man who died of COVID-19 complications.
To simplify the process, Signorelli sent out a PDF invitation that included in-depth directions on how to use Zoom and dial-ins for locations throughout the country. To create a sense of communion, the invitation suggests family members in the same household gather around the same computer to attend.
“We use the verbiage ‘digital life celebration’ on the invites,” he told HuffPost. “I’m considering these online funerals a down payment on a future, physical gathering. The hope that I have is the deceased will be honored twice as the result of these circumstances.”
Because of the newness of this situation, Signorelli likes to remind mourners of the inherent limitations of a Zoom funeral beforehand.
“Personally, I’ve officiated many funerals, and most of the healing and comfort that occurs happens in hallways where funny stories are being recounted,” he said. “It happens in a physical embrace of a trusted loved one. These are things that Zoom cannot necessarily replicate, which people should recognize.”
Not everyone feels the sense of community and closeness Guobadia said he felt at Adewumi’s service. There are those who leave a digital celebration feeling unsettled ― or that their loved one deserved so much more.
When Leah Irwin, an attorney in Baltimore, laid her 97-year-old grandfather to rest, the only person in attendance at the gravesite was the rabbi officiating the ceremony. (Irwin’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, died from COVID complications in April.)
After the burial, Irwin said she felt “extremely pissed off and sad that [her grandpa] who had three children, nine grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and dozens of nieces, nephews, and friends died alone and was buried alone.”
Luckily, the rabbi was well-versed in the technology, so the service itself ran smoothly.
“I was extremely nervous about the ceremony but it was better than expected,” Irwin told HuffPost. “Saying goodbye to my grandfather via video conference the day he died was far, far more devastating.”
Danielle Dell’Accio, an elementary school teacher in Buffalo, New York, lost both her great aunt and great uncle in April within the course of two days.
Later in the week, the extended family logged on to Zoom to watch a service being held at the funeral home. Sitting at her kitchen table, crying while watching the stream, Dell’Accio said she thought, “We are Italian. We hug. This is not how we do things.”
There were plenty of devastating moments: Dell’Accio had to have her 83-year-old grandmother pull into her driveway and watch the funeral on a laptop she had disinfected. (Her grandma doesn’t have Wi-Fi at home).
“She had to sit in her car alone to watch her sister and brother-in-law be laid to rest,” Dell’Accio said. “I can’t even imagine what she must have been feeling.”
Dell’Accio’s mom pulled into the driveway behind and watched the service on her tablet.
“I was inside supervising my kids’ school work,” she said. “I saw my mom with tears running down her cheeks through a screen. She held up handwritten notes for the family to read since we couldn’t hear each other. All I wanted to do was to run outside and give her a hug and I couldn’t even do that.”
But there were moments of levity, too ― moments where the family felt as close and at home with each other as they would have been if they were in the same room.
“One moment that made us all laugh was one of my great uncles trying to figure out Zoom. He didn’t realize he wasn’t on mute and that broke the tension a little bit,” she said. “Another sweet moment was when my cousin’s little one un-muted himself and started talking to all of us. He was so cute, waving and saying ‘hi everybody!’ Those two moments were what helped it feel more warm.”
Paul Kleiman attended a Zoom funeral ― and Zoom shiva ― for his father-in-law, who died of natural causes at 99 in mid-April. Kleiman, a senior consultant at a creative consulting firm in Manchester, England, told HuffPost that watching the funeral stream was “strange and almost dreamlike.”
The burial, held in Toronto with only 10 mourners in attendance, was a fairly depressing affair. For starters, gusty winds made it nearly impossible to hear the video feed.
But an hour later, Kleiman’s immediate family gathered via Zoom, and the gloominess that had marked the graveside portion of the funeral slowly began to lift.
“We started sharing memories and stories. There were lots of tears and laughter,” Kleiman said. “One of the grandchildren is the family archivist, and he had hundreds of photos to share going back to 1920, which was filmed into a video and sent around to the extended family and friends.”
“Despite everything, we have been able to share stories and memories and, importantly, our grief. It has been both awful and wonderful.”
– Paul Kleiman, who attended a Zoom funeral and shiva for his father-in-law
The family was even able to have a socially distanced version of sitting shiva, the Jewish custom of mourning for seven days while people visit and bring food to the family.
“Friends of ours in Manchester dropped off food on our doorstep, and we met with both the close and extended family via Zoom each night,” Kleiman said. “We’ve been able to connect with family and old friends throughout the world we haven’t seen in a long time.”
“Despite everything, we have been able to share stories and memories and, importantly, our grief,” he said. “It has been both awful and wonderful.”
There’s been an adjustment period for officiants and community religious leaders shifting to Zoom funerals as well.
Jennifer Kaluzny, a rabbi at Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, Michigan, said she’s gotten the rhythm of a Zoom funeral down more or less, but she misses the intimate moments of meeting in real life: the hugs before and after the ceremony, the conversations on the walk back to the cars, congregating in people’s homes, holding their hands, being able to look into their eyes.
Still, she said, a Zoom service has its value: In these strange, disconcerting, times, it’s an opportunity to let it sink in that the person is really gone ― a moment to completely concentrate on and honor the departed.
She hesitates to use the word “closure” when describing what mourners take away from their experiences, though.
“I am a big believer that we don’t ‘get over’ the death of someone we love, but rather, we ‘get through,’” she said. “Getting over, to me, has the subtleties of leaving someone behind. What happens is you move through the white-hot grief, and over time, you learn to live with their absence, and their love is what remains.”
In the case of deaths from coronavirus, Kaluzny thinks the trauma and period of mourning will stretch out a lot longer than usual. And at some point, hopefully, when we can gather en masse, there will be public displays of collective mourning. The candlelit vigils we’ve come to expect in the wake of national crises like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombings have been eerily absent from this shared experience.
“Right now, people are doing everything they possibly can in this moment to mourn, but that grief won’t disappear when the shelter-at home order lifts,” Kaluzny said. “There is so much that mourners will need throughout the coming months. We’ll need to continue to support people in so many ways.”
Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.