Funeral Gatherings Go Online In The Age Of The Coronavirus With limits on social gatherings, Americans have to mourn their dead through online memorials and virtual funerals.

Social Distancing Means Mourners Find New Ways To Cope And Connect

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Rituals affected by the pandemic include funerals. Just yesterday, we heard a warning of the danger. The head of an overwhelmed hospital in Albany, Ga., told us funerals are an opportunity for a virus with all the crying and wiping of noses, shaking of hands, hugging. How to grieve instead? Monica Eng of WBEZ tells us what some people are trying.

MONICA ENG, BYLINE: In just the last month, Richard Frieson has lost two sisters to COVID-19. He lives in Minneapolis, but his sisters Patricia and Wanda lived around Chicago. And when his big family got together in the past, there was always singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOUS LORD")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Precious Lord, take my hand.

RICHARD FRIESON: Singing was our big thing, and Patricia was one of our best singers in the family.

ENG: He said they'd get together and sing songs like "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" and at funerals, "Precious Lord," as sung here by Aretha Franklin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOUS LORD")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) I am tired - tired. I am weak. I am weak. I am worn.

ENG: But with the current pandemic, the Frieson family won't be getting together to grieve and hug and sing. Instead, they're doing this.

FRIESON: Today we're doing a big family Zoom call. It's just nice that we have this technology where we can actually look at each other.

ENG: This is just one of the ways families are learning to cope at a time when large funeral gatherings are strongly discouraged - even outdoors.

BOB ACHERMANN: I know some cemeteries are limiting the number of people who can attend the graveside service, trying to keep those numbers small.

ENG: Bob Achermann heads the California Funeral Directors Association. He says, these days, his staff has to remind mourners to do things like stop hugging - yeah, stop hugging at a funeral. They also have to tell people to keep their hands off the casket and the deceased.

ACHERMANN: In the normal time traditional service, I mean, it's not unusual people want to touch the deceased, you know, one last time. And so those kinds of things are discouraged, and people are advised to keep their distance.

ENG: But that's for families who still have traditional funerals, and Achermann says those are fading as families delay services or go with something like a virtual funeral that they livestream on the Internet. This has actually been an option for years, but recent demand for livestreamed funerals has surged.

JAMES MONTGOMERY: And not only that, but the amount of people watching those live streams, I would say, easily doubled if not tripled.

ENG: That's James Montgomery with the online funeral service called OneRoom Streaming. He said that most streamed funerals require a password. But others are public, like this one last week in Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Babbling).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ENG: You can hear a sad country song and a baby babbling, but you don't see many people in the actual chapel. Montgomery says that's becoming the new norm.

MONTGOMERY: But then when you look, there's 80 people watching online. So they're there; they're just not there physically.

ENG: Eileen Wiviott is a Unitarian minister in Evanston, just outside Chicago. She recently lost a member of her church and dedicated an online sermon to him. But then there was more.

EILEEN WIVIOTT: We also had a 3 o'clock Zoom meeting, and 90 people showed up.

ENG: These are all stopgap measures, of course, until the crisis is over and families, like Richard Frieson's, can have those long delayed memorials with real-life hugs and, yes, singing again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOUS LORD")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Precious Lord...

FRIESON: Oh, definitely, yes. Yeah, we'll definitely sing again.

ENG: For NPR News in Chicago, I'm Monica Eng.

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