Virtual funerals become new norm as families adapt during COVID

TORONTO, Ontario — COVID-19 has changed the world in a multitude of ways, but a recent study on how the coronavirus pandemic has transformed funeral services is especially eye-opening. University of Toronto researchers report that virtual funerals are becoming more and more “normal,” forcing families to change how they grieve their loved ones as well as how funeral practitioners perform their services.

A funeral is normally a time to properly honor and say goodbye to a loved one or close friend. The fact that the viral aspect of this pandemic has prevented countless people from holding a traditional funeral for a close family member is nothing short of tragic. Many now opt for a virtual funeral in lieu of an in-person gathering due to public gathering restrictions. The team at UT analyzed 62 academic and grey literature articles examining the use of virtual funeral practices throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 is greatly impacting the ways in which we grieve,” says lead study author and recent graduate Andie MacNeil in a media release. “Rituals and other mourning practices are such an integral component of the dying process, and they are being interrupted at a time when we are experiencing tremendous loss of life due to COVID-19.”

People question the ‘authenticity’ of virtual funerals

Unsurprisingly, many people have their fair share of reservations toward the idea of a virtual funeral. One concern that kept coming up is the subject of authenticity. Additionally, a virtual funeral can impede those without access to a computer from participating.

“The large recent uptake of virtual funerals due to pandemic restrictions has shone light on many challenges of this practice,” explains study co-author Rennie Bimman, now a social worker at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Roger Neilson House hospice in Ottawa. “There are concerns about the authenticity of using virtual platforms for mourning rituals that are meant to take place in person, and there are also significant barriers regarding access to technology.”

Despite these concerns, researchers believe there is also something to admire about the resourcefulness and determination that comes with holding a virtual funeral. Many have had to adapt to life during COVID and the popularity of virtual funerals shows that people won’t even let a global viral pandemic stop them from celebrating the lives of recently passed loved ones.

“It is imperative to highlight the ways in which individuals and families have adapted in order to continue traditional ways of grieving that are familiar and comforting,” comments study co-author Jacqueline Ho. “Practices such as virtual shiva and live-streamed funerals emphasize how people create meaningful experiences, despite the inability to be together in person.”

Virtual funerals may be here to stay

Meanwhile, both healthcare professionals and funeral service workers have shown great adaptability in their ability to pivot and change their practices to meet the needs of the pandemic.

“Our findings have demonstrated significant resilience, not only among individuals who have experienced loss, but also among mental health and funeral service professionals who are finding new ways to support those who are grieving,” notes study co-author Tali Barclay, a social worker and psychotherapist at the Breakwater Institute for Occupational Stress and Trauma.

The full impact of virtual funerals is still unknown. Researchers stress that there’s no way of predicting how funeral experiences during the pandemic influence long-term grieving outcomes. How will we look back on these services years from now?

“Mental health professionals must consider the strengths of those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic and also be cognizant of how these disruptions and changes to grieving may have lasting impacts,” says study co-author Blythe Findlay, a counsellor with the David Kelley Services program at Family Service Toronto.

Interestingly, the study actually concludes that virtual funerals may persist long after the pandemic ends.

“The shift to virtual mourning practices may be the way of the future,” concludes study co-author Taylor Hocking, program manager for the Toronto HomeShare Program at the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how easy it can be to open this once very private event to family and friends around the world. The shift to virtual services can increase accessibility and provide opportunities to connect with distant loved ones, allowing many to grieve in ways not experienced before.”

The findings appear in OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying.