This article was originally published on VICE UK.
“Funeral selfies” are becoming a problem for undertakers. Scroll through the hashtag on Instagram and you’ll see why: There’s everything from the standard popped-hip likes-bait to teenagers face swapping with the deceased at open-casket affairs.
There’s a reason this feels so inappropriate: Funerals are inherently private occasions, so the act of letting outsiders in with a pouty selfie tagged #funeral #sad #ootd is a deeply uncomfortable one. More awkward still is the idea of your friends picking up their phones and watching your corpse’s final minutes above ground over their crappy 3G connection, the blurry coffin jutting out behind those curtains.
But livestreaming funerals isn’t just a figment of the future; it’s a trend already very much in action—and while being divisive, certainly has more to offer than a Slav-squat selfie next to the hearse.
“Everyone was introducing themselves at the beginning of the funeral, which was strained, as those things are. But then the elephant in the room was that there was a camera up on the wall pointing at the proceedings,” said John Evelyn, 33, from Portsmouth. He lost his brother-in-law, who had family in America unable to make it across, so the next of kin decided to livestream the funeral. “I think the strangest thing was that, after, it was only mentioned in passing—like people took to it very naturally. ‘Wasn’t it nice they could join us.’ That kind of thing.”
“I couldn’t stop thinking afterward that I’d just sat watching Netflix on my iPad in the same place the night before.”
In a new survey, Royal London said that a growing number of funeral directors and crematoriums are now offering livestreaming of funerals and that more than half of 50 UK crematoriums and funeral directors they spoke to already offer a livestreaming service in response to the demand for it. A spokesperson at CJ Reilly Funeral Services told me that newer crematoriums are being designed with static livestreaming in mind and that older ones are strongly considering the switch.
While only 26 percent of those aged 55-plus would watch a loved one’s funeral using livestreaming if they couldn’t attend, dropping to 23 percent of those aged 35 to 54, young people are very much onboard. A third of millennials would watch a livestreamed funeral.
Amy, 27, an Australian living in London, watched a livestream of her grandad’s funeral back home. She says she was a bit hungover, clearing out her bedroom beforehand and making it clean in preparation (“It seemed appropriate”), and that she told her housemates—who were quiet throughout.
“I honestly didn’t think there was anything strange about it, other than being sad leading up to it because I couldn’t be there in person,” she said. “Once it was happening, there was definitely a disconnect. It felt like I wasn’t really there—which I wasn’t—which made me more sad, in a way. I couldn’t stop thinking afterwards that I’d just been watching Netflix on my iPad in the same place the night before.”
While livestreaming funerals is reasonably new, funeral directors have been embracing technological requests over the past decade or more.
“Some people have always had photos taken at the service, as long as it’s discreet,” said Andrew Leverton of Leverton and Sons funeral directors, whose company frequently arranges for DVDs of the day to be made. “With video, you actually capture not only the atmosphere but also the words that were said and the movements and the whole experience. Humans like to have something for posterity and to look at from time to time. It’s no different from eulogies, which might be kept, or service sheets, to give you an item of remembrance for what order everything came in and what music was played.”
I can’t imagine a situation in which I’d want to sit down after work with a beer and revisit my grandpa’s funeral, but Leverton insists lots do.
“If a person is not at the funeral physically to either weep or cry along with other people and literally seeing their family member be buried, then they have a psychologically detached experience of the loss”
John Evelyn says livestreaming is essentially just an extension of this. “Everyone—older folks included—just kind of went with it. I think funerals are inherently pretty grim and uncomfortable anyway; no one would willfully make it harder for people to be a part of this kind of situation by saying anything. Frankly, [his brother-in-law] was a hero of mine and my best friend, so the more people that wanted to show their respects and be a part of it the better.”
Some have raised concerns that the intrusion would prevent attendees from grieving properly. Marc Hekster, a consultant psychologist at Insight London, agreed that this could be an issue but raised a point that it comes down to who chooses to do the livestream. If the people closest to the deceased wish to share the day with others who can’t make it, who are we to pass judgment?
“If it brings those who are suffering the most the feeling of more people being together, then it could bring comfort and help with the process,” Hekster told me over the phone.
For those who are watching the livestream, however, it’s a different story.
“A funeral is a really important ritual that’s part of taking the grieving process forward to its more advanced stages,” said Hekster. “If a person is not at the funeral physically to either weep or cry, or do whatever they want to do alongside other people, and literally seeing their family member being buried, then one could say that you have a psychologically detached experience of the loss.
“This livestreaming creates a golden opportunity to ‘attend,’ but in a way that compromises the capacity of a person to grieve in a more comprehensive way by being right there to see and feel the atmosphere. It’s less solemn. You’re not sitting quietly and being very respectful; you could be eating a sandwich and having a smoke or something. No one really knows what you’re doing.”
What Hekster is putting importance on is the sensory experience, however unpleasant: the physical touch of another grieving person, the smell of the earth mixing with your aunt’s perfume, being able to look around and see the faces of people who loved the deceased as much as you did.
“If someone passes away, they’re not going to run home every time a neighbor dies. We’ve found people would use the camera to connect with people in some way when there really is no other way”
But the reality is that plenty of people live too far away from home to make it back for all that. Amy couldn’t afford to go back to Australia and had no vacation time left from work. Members of John’s brother-in-law’s family couldn’t make it all the way from the States.
So it makes sense that Ireland—which has high emigration rates—is adapting. A tiny church in Ireland, Acres Church, has installed a webcam that it uses to share funerals with the rest of the world.
“We’re a country of immigrants, aren’t we?” said Father Pat Ward over the phone. “People are born here, or they come here to study, and then they leave. They have to go off to other countries to get good employment, but they have a strong connection with their home country. If someone passes away, they’re not going to run home every time. What we’ve found is that people would use the camera to connect with people in some way when there really is no other way.”
Give it a decade or so, and you can imagine cameras being an opt-out option at every funeral home and crematorium in the country. “This trend is going going to continue,” said Leverton. “You’ll probably find you come around to the idea along with everyone else.”
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