Coronavirus Is Spurring a New Era of Digital Funerals

It’s easier than ever to bury your loved ones online

Illustration: Mushbuh

InIn Shanghai last spring, more than two million people flocked to their local cemeteries to clean the graves of their ancestors. They pulled weeds, burned ghost money, and laid out fresh flowers. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, China’s 2,500-year-old Qingming Festival, known in English as Tomb Sweeping Day, will look a little different.

To stop the spread of coronavirus, many cemeteries in China have closed their gates and launched a range of “cloud tomb sweeping” services according to the Shanghai Daily. (The “cloud,” in this case, refers to cloud computing.) Instead of celebrating Tomb Sweeping Day in person, families can see the cemetery in virtual reality, watch staff clean their relatives’ graves over livestream, and curate online memorials for their loved ones. The cost of services ranges from the price of fresh flowers to a few hundred yuan for a full livestreaming package.

Similar restrictions around the world are leading people elsewhere to cancel funerals or push back memorials. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourages any group larger than 50 from gathering, and many state and regional health authorities have turned that recommendation into law. On Monday, the CDC advised funeral directors to livestream funerals when possible and limit any in-person memorials to close family.

For decades, the death industry has been notoriously difficult to “disrupt.” Technology has transformed dozens of other sectors, but funeral directors have been slow to change. The software startup FuneralOne launched its live video service in 2008, but some morticians held out, arguing that technology failed to provide a much-needed human touch and that livestreams would encourage laziness. Now that audio and video tools can offer near-seamless virtual funerals, some find the whole concept of an online funeral creepy — an uncanny valley of death. But the coronavirus all but demands digital death services, and companies around the world are ready to help.

InIn the United States today, roughly 1 in 5 American funeral homes have livestreaming capabilities, according to a 2019 Wired interview with Bryant Hightower, the president of the National Funeral Directors Association. Livestreaming can be helpful when mourners can’t afford to travel or won’t be able to make it to the funeral in time. It’s also useful during a pandemic when everyone is stuck inside their homes.

Mark Musgrove of Musgrove Funeral Home in Eugene, Oregon, was already in the process of installing livestream equipment when the coronavirus first appeared in the United States. Now that it’s here, he says more funeral directors will be trying to go digital. “Funerals and memorials are all about being there, supporting each other, touching, hugging, loving each other — that’s the preference,” he told OneZero. “But with these restrictions, [digital options] may be something families ask for.”

“I think even after coronavirus ends, it’s still incredibly necessary.”

If your local funeral home doesn’t have a camera, startups could fill the void. OneRoom, an international funeral livestream company, has reportedly seen a 60% increase in weekly views since the coronavirus outbreak. And GatheringUs, which began in 2019 as a digital memorial site, recently expanded into virtual funerals and receptions. In a digital funeral, mourners log into a video chat on their phone or computer, and GatheringUs staff members moderate prayers, speeches, and musical numbers. They can even incorporate live footage from a cemetery or funeral home. In a digital reception, staffers act as virtual emcees, grouping participants in smaller video chats, similar to the way people naturally cluster at reception tables in real life — one hub for high school buddies, another for work friends. If anyone experiences technical difficulties, the team is ready to troubleshoot.

Noha Waibsnaider, the co-founder and CEO of GatheringUs, thinks the best virtual funeral should give people a “feedback loop” — evidence that other people see and understand their emotions. “To be a spectator is one thing, but to be a participant is another thing,” she told OneZero. While in-person funerals are often the best way to get that support, in some cases, technology can outperform reality: GatheringUs plans to introduce closed captioning for digital funeral attendees who have difficulty hearing.

“I think even after coronavirus ends, it’s still incredibly necessary” to provide online options, Waibsnaider said.

InIn China, consumer technology is already embedded in the cemetery landscape. Nanjing cemeteries introduced cloud tomb sweeping a decade ago to cater to people who live far from home and can’t visit their family’s grave in person. They worry that, if someone doesn’t tidy the grave on the Qingming Festival or burn paper effigies during the Hungry Ghost Festival — a period each summer when the boundaries between the living and the dead dissolve — their family members will suffer in the afterlife and, potentially, haunt them in this one.

For companies like the Fu Shou Yuan Group, China’s largest funeral provider, bridging the digital — and mortal — divide is lucrative. Doing so doesn’t just provide a physical grave, which can already cost more per square foot than a luxury apartment in some parts of China; it eases the “transition into something like a memory factory,” Hua Yi, the Fu Shou Yuan Group’s chief branding officer, told the South China Morning Post. The company hopes livestreams, digital memorials, and headstone QR codes will be as valuable as the tomb itself.

Many people in China, however, criticize “the transformation of Tomb Sweeping Day into a collection of services to be rendered rather than the solemn communion with our ancestors that it is meant to be,” wrote folklore expert Dai Wangyun in the magazine Sixth Tone, which translates Chinese perspectives into English for Western audiences. But for many families, she argued, it’s better than the alternative — which is no celebration at all. In the past, outsourcing these duties and digitizing even the more sensitive part of our lives, like mourning, seemed optional, even extravagant. But the coronavirus has made it clear how important devices are in keeping the living connected — to the dead and to each other.

“Old traditions are deeply rooted, but it is quite understandable because it is a special [isolation] period,” George Chen, whose grandparents are buried in Shanghai, told Shine. “I will pay virtual respects and visit the scene once the [pandemic] ends.”

Freelance science journalist. Writes a death newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/elliepses

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