In 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.
In the United States today, roughly 1 in 5 American funeral homes have livestreaming capabilities, according to a 2019 Wired interview with Bryant Hightower, the…