Foss: A funeral on Zoom

20.10.2020
Foss: A funeral on Zoom

By Sara Foss


What should one wear to a Zoom funeral? 

That was the question I found myself asking a couple weeks ago, as I prepared to sit on my couch, boot up my laptop and log in to my cousin Skip’s funeral. 

Should I put on a nice shirt? Or was a sweatshirt fine? In the end, I decided my sweatshirt was fine — it was plain and black and clean, and though I’d never wear it to an in-person funeral, seemed perfectly acceptable for a casual online video conferencing platform like Zoom.  

Going to Skip’s funeral in Massachusetts wasn’t an option, and I was one of about two dozen people who logged in to the small, private event from a distance. 

At times, the sound quality was a bit murky, but mostly I was impressed, and more than a little surprised, by how connected I felt to what was going on — to Skip’s family, to far-flung relatives also attending via Zoom, to Skip himself. 

There were readings and stories and songs, and at times Skip’s spirit seemed to fill my living room — a testament to how well these remembrances and reflections captured his ebullient personality and lively sense of humor.

Prior to Skip’s funeral, I would have assumed that attending a funeral on Zoom would be an awful experience, that tuning in from a distance, on a computer, would mute the event’s emotional impact.  

But that wasn’t the case. 

The pandemic has robbed us the ability to gather and observe life’s important rituals in the way we’re accustomed to. Ideally, Skip’s passing, from cancer at the age of 68, would have been an opportunity to gather and honor a life well-lived. Instead, we used a technology made ubiquitous by COVID-19 to show our respects. And you know what? 

It was OK. 

Good, even. 

Some people hate Zoom, which has seen explosive growth during the pandemic, a trend driven by the shift to working from home, while a number of articles and essays have explored the platform’s draining effect on people. 

One National Geographic article looked at the rise of “zoom fatigue,” observing that “this exhaustion also applies if you’re using Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-calling interface. The unprecedented explosion of their use in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what’s always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.” 

Unlike some people, I don’t use Zoom enough to be exhausted by it. 

My use of Zoom is sporadic, which might explain why I’ve found it to be such a valuable, even energizing, tool.

When I do use it, it’s mostly to connect with people I care about, at a time when our ability to interact with others is constrained by social distancing guidelines and restrictions.  

We’ve started doing regular Zooms with my son’s grandparents, and also his aunts, uncles and cousins. 

At two, he is too young to chat on the phone, or email or text, and this has been a great way for him to see and hear extended family in Maine, New Hampshire and Long Island.

And while it’s no substitute for a big family get-together, it’s better than I might have expected — filled with insight into our everyday lives, and the kinds of unpredictable comic moments that can’t be captured by a phone call. Zoom can show my son dancing or showing off his toy cars in real time, or smiling with amusement. 

I’ve also used Zoom to connect with friends near and far, and these get-togethers often have been among the highlights of the week. 

I’m not sure how our use of Zoom will change once the pandemic is over, but I am convinced of this: This technology is here to stay. 

It can’t replace in-person gatherings or visits, but it offers its own, albeit more limited, rewards. 

The other night I zoomed with a friend in North Carolina for nearly 90 minutes, and it really felt like we were hanging out and shooting the breeze, perhaps because we were. Over 600 miles separated us, but it seemed like we were much closer. 

After I logged out of Skip’s funeral, I felt as if I’d really gone somewhere. 

And in some ways, I had.

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