What We Can Learn From a Virtual Funeral

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It wasn’t a regular Saturday. There was no sleeping in, no skipping a shower, no leisurely coffee, and a crossword puzzle. I had a funeral to attend. I was moving early, showered, shaved, and dressed in a suit, although I’ll admit to wearing slippers. I could get away with it, of course, because I was simply dialing up a website, and with two clicks I was there. I saw the program, listened to stories and songs. When people were asked if they had anything to share about the deceased, I raised my virtual hand, was unmuted, and told my tale. I cried.

Little did I know that this experience would lead to a client relationship with GatheringUs, a new organization that, among other things, offers a professionally moderated and organized virtual funeral or memorial service.

Virtual events have been the only kind of event during this health crisis. And most of them, from streaming concerts and DJ sets, to lectures, tasting, and trade shows, just don’t even come close to the real thing. But, born out of necessity, these events have been the only game in town.

When confronted with the idea of a virtual memorial, I thought, like those others, it would pale in comparison to the “real” thing. But, after participating in a few, I realize how wrong I was. These events have proved moving and fulfilling; so much so that I’d wager that they stick around beyond when we have a coronavirus vaccine.

As the discussion turns toward opening up the country and our industry thinks about producing live events again, I’ve realized that there are some great insights about what makes these virtual events successful, which should be part of our new normal.

A virtual funeral is cinematic; emotional, communal, yet intimate

In many ways attending a live funeral is like attending the theater. There is a program, ushers tell you when to sit, and a select group of people shares stories and readings to the crowd. Those in attendance offer condolences, share stories, and their emotions with each other.

While a virtual funeral loses that physical connection, we’ve seen that emotions are dialed way up. Instead of a program of speeches that vary in quality (public speaking isn’t easy), families are telling their stories through photos, movies, and interviews with loved ones. These pieces are carefully edited, set to music (perhaps a favorite song of the deceased), and the impact is startlingly powerful. Attendees view on their home PC or television, which is a safe space where they can be free with their feelings. The device actually brings guests much closer to what’s happening than they would be if they were sitting anywhere but the first two rows of any house of worship.

If we are looking to create an emotional connection and dial up the intimacy of experience, we need to remember to create “safe spaces” within an experience where people don’t feel the scrutiny of others and welcome the use of every storytelling medium, both live and recorded.

The participants are adding tremendous value

Before the heath crisis, for many people, the act of attending the funeral is a physical one. You plan a day, you get dressed up, you travel – sometimes a long distance. There is both time and energy put into just showing up. I’m one who believes that showing up is always the most important thing. But, sometimes, I’ll admit, there are occasions where I’ve felt like showing up is enough. I think for many, the participation in a funeral stops there.

With a virtual funeral, the value proposition has changed. You can show up with the click of the button and, as a result, participants are using that saved time and money, which perhaps normally would be used to just show up, to create movies, to write stories and poems, and in general bring tremendous value to the overall experience. Active participation is way up, and the services are better for it.

We need to keep looking for opportunities to make the act of attending an event free of as many barriers as possible and invite those who wish to add value to turn their participation from passive to active.

Active participation makes for memorable and powerful experiences.

Design events with grandparents in mind, overinvest in support

In our virtual funerals, we are required to use a technology platform to reach people extremely unfamiliar with that platform (Zoom), and the devices required to use them. So, we’ve been forced into developing instructions and support that really overdeliver since there is a huge gap in basic understanding from a large swath of the audience.

What we’ve found is that attendees show up with the expectation that a virtual event is going to be inherently flawed; but, when we are able to defy those expectations, they are delighted beyond words.

When thinking about live events, which are always involving new tech, we should consider our grandparents, never assume tech literacy, or that people will even understand basic wayfinding. If we overinvest in providing carefully curated support, we will see the benefit by having delighted attendees instead of grumpy ones.

In summary, I know that everyone in the live events business is dealing with challenges. I personally have a ton of Zoom fatigue and want to punch (through a computer) anyone who uses the word “pivot.” That said, it’s our responsibility as event professionals to keep our eyes and ears open for things that will inform our work once we get our live events up and running again.

This period of a virtual experience may only deliver part of the time, but there are definitely ideas and insights that will endure the social distancing era and enhance engagements for the foreseeable future. Let’s use this time to find them and make events better.


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