the shape of leadership

Funerals in a Time of Social Distancing

The pandemic has upended life — and death

Kristi Northup on May 19, 2020

Funerals are something we pride ourselves on in New Orleans. Often marked with both tears and laughter, they finish with a procession in the street known as a “second line.” A band leads the mourners with upbeat jazz music, and people come out of their houses and cars to join the jazz funeral. Funerals here are a big deal.

Naturally, the loss of this tradition and many others have compounded the grief, and left it feeling unreal. But with our own community hit so hard during this pandemic, normal funerals are not an option.

While the stay-at-home orders are beginning to lift, it may be a long time before we are able to gather in the way we are accustomed. We’re learning to do everything differently, and grieving is no exception.

Shortly after stay-at-home orders were issued, we started hearing about people in our community passing away, including some who were COVID-19 victims. The limitations on gatherings have made it nearly impossible for families, friends and church members to grieve together.

Some families chose to wait until they could gather with others to memorialize their loved ones. However, large gatherings may not be possible for months.

Our ministry friends began to discuss ways we could help families during this time. One of the solutions is virtual funeral services.

This can be accomplished in several different ways, and each approach has its benefits and limitations. A formal service in a church can be livestreamed, with or without mourners present.

Facebook Live is a simple way to share a service or an informal memorial. Zoom is more private, and more people can speak or sing if they are not able to be present in the same locations.

Some families are not comfortable with the idea of a virtual service. It can be especially challenging for older congregations who aren’t tech savvy. We’ve seen churches offer outdoor drive-in funerals. Others gather with a small group of people to hold a private service.

I saw one story about a mobile funeral. It reminded me of the old sidewalk Sunday School trucks that opened on one side to reveal a sound system and a podium. The truck goes where the people are.

We’re learning to do everything differently, and grieving is no exception.

We realize none of these options can take the place of a formal funeral. The extended time with family and friends, the tearful hugs, and the meals together are among the things people are missing during this time. But we are finding new ways to share the love of Christ and mourn with those who mourn.

As we began putting options in place, I didn’t know the first funeral would be for one of my own family members. My Aunt Verna had been gravely sick for several months. She was never married, and the decisions about her care fell to her brothers and extended family.

When the end came in the early morning hours on April 16, Aunt Verna's closest friend was able to be in the room with her. Yet no one could travel. There could be no service.

My sister Elizabeth Farina, co-pastor of Liberty Church (Assemblies of God) in Woodbury, Minnesota, began planning our first virtual funeral. We discussed different platforms but decided on Zoom, which allows up to 100 people to participate.

Our family got dressed up for the first time since we started sheltering at home. About 50 people joined us from all over the country. My father shared a brief message of salvation. An uncle shared a memory. The wife of Verna’s pastor told stories of her spitfire personality and passion for people and prayer. I sang a worship song. A few more people shared their memories. And then it was over.

It was more than I hoped it could be; at the same time, it seemed anticlimactic. I was grateful for my faraway aunts and uncles to be able to see my kids onscreen, even though my kids missed out on a dwindling chance to see my extended family in action.

We shared our favorite memories, but it lacked the quiet hum of a visitation, and we missed the real stories families love to tell as the evening wears on. Nevertheless, I was grateful we were able to be together and do something.

This is a season of loss. Loss of employment. Loss of plans. Loss of rites of passage. Loss of life. I’ve heard it said that during this time we’re all in the same storm; we’re just in different boats.

It is especially hard for families who are grieving the loss of a loved one. As the body of Christ, let’s go the extra mile and do what we can to grieve with them. In the end, the effort can show love and care as much as the event itself.

The shortest verse in the Bible reminds us that even though the family of Lazarus was greatly disappointed by Jesus’ absence, the Lord shared in the pain of the moment with them: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

Jesus weeps with us now. He reminds us we are not alone, even in this time of isolation and loss. Jesus will continue to show His compassion and remind us of His resurrection power, just as He did in the Gospel of John: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

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