I attended four Zoom funerals during the pandemic.
Each one was populated by squares of pixelated faces grieving from home online together; heartfelt eulogies glitching; poems and video montages jittery with spotty reception.
During one, on my laptop screen, a burial was being broadcast graveside. I watched a few masked loved ones shoveling dirt atop the grave, the quiet dig of metal against earth, a muffling wind blowing past the mic. Then suddenly, my screen was filled with an elderly couple in their kitchen discussing strawberries. Another couple needed an appointment, a phone call had to be returned. Mics accidentally unmuted switched the viewers from gravesite to kitchens and living rooms across the country.
Those of us who had tuned in for the funeral overheard mundanities meant for no one juxtaposed with a burial meant for everyone, which only few could attend in person because of the pandemic. We saw up-close, grief-stricken faces muttering private sorrows into the screen. We did the best we could, given travel restrictions, coming together virtually in ceremony. Yet, why did everything about these pandemic-style funerals feel so wrong? What do we do now with all the grief that never had its proper chance to be shared in person?
“Zoom” used to be a live-action TV show I watched in the 1970s and ’80s. Inspired by shows like “The Electric Company” and “Sesame Street,” “Zoom” was a high-energy show created and performed by kids. The show played fast and furious across the screen ― zooming. The word itself, “zoom,” flies from the mouth as soon as the teeth come together with the buzz of the Z. Death whisks a life away ― zoom ― and the person is gone.
There is something inherently zippy and frenetic about the word zoom. The word “funeral” is slow and languorous, heavy on the downbeat of the long U. Funerals are a pause in the frenzy. These two words repel each other. They do not belong together. Zoom + funeral. And yet, here I was, in all my grief, clicking to join.
Now it’s a given ― that whispering voice reminding us this is not how it’s supposed to be. And yet some things seem easier to accept: hand sanitizer everywhere, taped arrows directing traffic on grocery store floors, mannequins sporting masks. We’ve learned to stand back. Give space. These new rhythms creep into our habits as we cross the street to avoid each other — the sidewalk no longer suitable for two.
We find ourselves adjusting. While our children are appalled at old TV shows where passengers smoke cigarettes on airplanes, we now cringe at scenes of crowds hustling through packed train stations, bumping mindlessly into one another, carelessly shaking bare hands. How reckless! A mix of horror and nostalgia flood us. How could they? We wonder how we’ve been catapulted so quickly and so far from what once seemed normal.
Some of these new habits actually seem like improvements: Why haven’t we always called ahead from the parking lot of doctors’ offices? Why would we ever again blow out candles on a cake meant to share? But the Zoom funeral is one thing I hope never settles into a permanent ritual.
In my culturally mixed upbringing, I’ve been accustomed to funerals extending beyond an hourlong ceremony. On my Jewish side, after the burial, we sit shiva for a weeklong gathering ― a coming together with food and loved ones to mourn together, day after day. On my Greek Orthodox side, we follow a multipart ritual that includes an evening wake, and after the funeral, a festive Greek luncheon, and we continue memorial services the following Sunday, and again 40 days later, and yet again a year later.
Part of the comfort in these traditions is knowing we will continue coming together. None of them end with Zoom’s red button or being told this meeting has been ended by the host.
I logged on 15 minutes early to the funeral for my dear friend. It was a private gathering of her family members in a beautiful outdoor garden halfway across the country. I sat on my bed, alone, surrounded by a scatter of photographs I’d collected of her and me together over the past 32 years.
I waited for the host to start the meeting. When the camera turned on, it faced a table in front of a fence with flowers. And then I heard voices. The service had not yet begun, but the host had forgotten to mute the call. My heart picked up its pace, relieved at having unexpectedly been transported there.
I shut my eyes, privy to the small talk, grateful for the technical error. I recognized my friend’s family members’ voices. I was there, standing beside them amongst the chatter, invisible, yet there.
I imagined my friend witnessing the same, hovering unseen, surrounded by their voices, as close as she could ever come. Then, suddenly midsentence, everything went silent. The host discovered the error.
Alone again in my bed, I reached for my photos. My heart constricting, I logged out of Zoom and back in, hoping to find the loophole, trying to get back to the sound, but as more and more people around the country joined the call, everything remained muted. Then the service began.
After a couple months, I started reading through a stack of books on loss trying to understand why I wasn’t marching efficiently through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ clearly delineated five stages of grief. That is when I came across Chapter 2 in David Kessler’s book “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.” When I scanned the table of contents and read the chapter title, I shouted, “Yes, that’s it!” in my kitchen: “Chapter Two: Grief Must Be Witnessed.”
My heart fluttered with that urgency you get when you land on a sudden truth. Hallelujah! I quickly opened to the page.
Kessler describes our intrinsic need, beginning from the time we are infants, for our emotional states to be acknowledged. He describes an experiment conducted with mothers and infants. When one mother responds to her infant with a blank stare rather than mirroring back the infant’s expression, the baby begins to scream in agony.
The ultimate terror. We carry it with us. This human need to see one another.
“The reality is that we heal as a tribe,” Kessler writes. On a 45-minute Zoom meeting, through the computer screen, we are not healing as a tribe. We are not bearing witness. We are not truly coming together. It is not a sufficient substitute. If others, like myself, feel stuck in grief, perhaps we can attribute it to this innate need being shortchanged.
My husband’s friend also died young, and after his Zoom funeral the host opened it up to viewers to share stories of him in a beautiful attempt at creating an intimate space through the computer. Each person who shared was put in presenter mode, their face taking up the screen while the others disappeared from view. One person’s mic stopped working, cutting them off mid-story, and another’s screen froze right as they started sharing; the inability to interject or respond or add on caused each story to hang in the space unacknowledged. Stories were spoken, but it was unclear whether they’d been received.
A family member freezes mid-cry. We try to look away. We try to reach out and touch. We try to wipe tears. At the Zoom funeral, we still have our strawberries or our appointments to discuss, our calls to be made. We are surrounded by our lives, mistakenly aired. These recurring bloopers sting because they shriek of our separation.
Kessler also writes about a researcher studying the ways of Indigenous villages in Australia. A villager told him that when someone dies, the members of the community move a piece of furniture outside their homes and onto their lawns, so when the grieving family wakes up, they see that nothing looks the same. A visual representation, an offering, acknowledging yes, the world has turned upside down, see our bed, our kitchen table, our chairs, everything is mixed up, the world has changed. I cannot imagine a more profound offering in grief, this physical acknowledgment that might keep us from screaming in distress when the Zoom call ends.
We need to come together in grief. We need to feel the hands of others who were connected to this person on each other’s shoulders. We need to stand close, share stories, wipe tears, in real time and space, not through a pixelated screen where at any moment the connection might drop.
When we get through this pandemic, I want to redo all the Zoom funerals. I want us all to get together in person, hug one another for every day we were unable to do so. But my fear is that our culture of grieving will not approve of it. It will not want all our pain and sadness to persist, and so it will have tracked our grief on the calendar and told us our allotted time has passed. It will say, “It’s been a year, two years, five years, you have moved on, you have healed.” It will say, “At least you had Zoom, at least you could connect that way; at least you had a lifelong friendship. Some people never do.”
When we get together again, it will be for a birthday, a wedding, a graduation, to celebrate; it will be joyous and full of life because this is good and we feel comfortable. We will no longer mourn what has already been screenshared. We have left the meeting. This meeting has ended. The ghosts have gone. The spirits ascended. We have moved on. We have found closure. We’ve clicked the solid red rectangle on the bottom of the screen. Shut the laptop. The host has ended this meeting.
We yearn for it.
Our primal need stirs.
We cry out in agony.
Grief must be witnessed.
We are weighed down in accumulated grief.
We need to set it down.
When the pandemic ends, if we cannot redo all the Zoom funerals, I will turn my house inside out, haul all of my furniture onto our small front lawn facing the busy street and leave it there. I will sit on the bare floor in an empty house and watch the passersby pause. I will see them wonder if it is their imagination or if the world indeed has turned inside out like they had suspected, because they, too, have lost someone this year, and they, too, did not come together to mourn. And they’ll nod at the display, at the chaotic arrangement of bed and chair and table mismatched on the grass, validating each item as they do. And maybe, someone will stop and sit down to rest on one of the chairs, take a moment in comfort, relieved at the mere sight of it. And then I will step outside and someone else will stop and perhaps lie down on the bed, and another and then another. And then, in a house turned inside out, in a world trying to regain its shape, we will cry and laugh and remember and share in all the beautiful lives we loved and lost, together.
Melanie Faranello is a writer from Chicago living in Connecticut. A Pushcart Prize nominee, recipient of a CT Individual Artist Fellowship Award, and a Creative Community Fellow with National Arts Strategies, her writing has appeared in numerous publications and been shortlisted for various awards. She is the founder of Poetry on the Streets, LLC. Read more of her work online at www.melaniefaranello.com.
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