Streaming Goodbye During Covid-19

By: Sarah Reid Hedberg
Thursday, May 28, 2020

*Names and identifying details changed.

I wake into morning light filtering through the blinds. I stretch my hands up into the empty dimness above me. Today these hands are charged with holding family members around the world as they view their fathers’ and husband’s funeral via livestream during Covid-19.

I read the obituary. The man who is being buried today had a terrific laugh. He and his wife retired to the country and hosted barbecues. He loved to sing in his church choir. I remember meeting him and his wife when they prearranged their funerals. We knew people in common. His wife lives in a nursing home and their children live overseas. All his immediate family is unable to attend his funeral because of the Public Health restrictions.

It’s a sun-filled spring day but windy at the funeral home. I knock at the window and wave a silly wave. I stay outside so that our split shifts don’t cross-contaminate. The funeral director is outside greeting the clergy and eight family members, screening them for symptoms of Covid-19 or contact with it. Soon the group is inside for the visitation.

The wind is loud. I set the work cell-phone on its tripod, fiddle with the legs, then unscrew the adaptor. The phone fills my palm. The funeral director and I find the daughter’s contact in the livestream app. I tap on her name: here we go.

The daughter brings her siblings and mother into the call. The siblings are in different countries but the wife is down the road from us. We share greetings and condolences as they assemble in their little boxes on the screen of the phone.  I hand the phone to the inside funeral director who takes them into the chapel to see their father and husband in the open casket. They come back to me, their faces softened. The minister comes beside me on the sidewalk, looks at them on the phone screen and prays with them. We say goodbye for the moment while I drive to the cemetery.

His plot is in a sheltered valley, quiet except for birdsong. The family jiggle as I set them up on the tripod. As the staff get into formation, I murmur to the family that there is no wind here and that the birds are singing. A son says “Mom, nice job choosing a plot.” I give them a 360 degree look around the plot, taking in old monuments on green slopes, a gravel lane curving around us, and unfortunately a backhoe visible above the hill. Then the coach door opens and the six pallbearers, all wearing masks, carry their father and husband to the waiting plot.

I am looking at the family on the screen while they are looking at what my video is capturing. They cannot see me looking at them, which is good. I monitor them for any needs I can meet: are they straining to hear? Squinting to see? No, they are smiling at the minister’s recollections of eating with their father and husband. They are resting in their seats in front of their computers as if they were right here. Which they are.  

“To all of you here and far away,” the minister looks right at me as I stand in the circle of nieces, cousins, and a sister in attendance. The phone is inches in front of my nose, the tripod now my Steady-Cam, “we are praying for you. We feel for your loss and we’ll be praying you through this.” Those around me shift and look at me and the phone, realizing the immediately family is here, on it. He reads from the Book of Revelation, and heaven is in the air, pungent. I see the siblings pulling off their glasses, looking at their spouses, wiping at their eyes.

The wife has become a smear in her box. The daughter calls out softly, “Mom, can you hear okay?” An elderly voice says automatically, “Yes.” A son says, “Mom, take your finger off the camera,” and she’s back. I gather from the minister’s stories that the past years have been very difficult, health-wise, for husband and wife.

The minister looks directly at me again, addresses the man’s wife and children, giving thanks for their father and husband. Our funeral director walks forward with a brass vial of sand, which he pours out evenly in the shape of a cross on the end of the casket. The minister leads “The Lord’s Prayer,” for which my screen family bow their heads and close their eyes and join in. I debate the use of my own voice, decide to throw caution to the far-off wind, and recite it as well.

While the funeral director gives roses from the casket-spray to the family in attendance, I take the family on the phone up to the end of the casket to see the cross laid there in sand. I put my hand on it so they can see it and imagine themselves touching it.

I turn to two older men with their masks pulled low over their faces. “Time to take it off, I think,” one offers. Then they say hello to the phone.

“Hello Trudie. Is that you Dan? Hey, it’s Dan. And John. And there’s Sue.”

The unmasked man points out to me the sister of the deceased and tells me she’s been really close to them. I walk towards her, a small woman in a flowered fleece zip-up with a bright pink mask. She says to the phone with bright, sure eyes, “Trudie, I’ll be calling you tonight to see how you’re doing.”

Trudie says, “Okay.”

“Hi Dan, John and Sue. I had my melt-down this morning.” Her gaze is remarkably steady. I imagine she’s been excellent help to them. “We’ll get through it,” she says.

The children thank her, saying they’ll have a proper get together next summer when they can all be together again.

I turn to the next pair of family gathered. “Well look, that’s Dan. And Trudie. And there’s Sue and John. It’s good to see you again,” they say. One lady asks me who I am, i.e. which family member? I explain that I’m part of the James Reid funeral home, then walk backwards, stretching my arm to the max.

Two more pairs stand before the immediate family on the phone in my hand. These say thank you to the wife and children for allowing them to come. The children say “You’re welcome, how are you?” The guests tell the immediate family about their last visit with their dad and husband. They stare evenly at the camera with pleasant, unself-conscious faces.  

When all walk back to their cars, I turn the camera back to the casket sitting in its valley. A son remarks on the bird song. Trudie, the now-widow, says, “Bill would have liked that.”

I ask them if there is anything else they’d like me to do? They thank me, then one son asks his mom if she’s ready to say goodbye to Dad? She says, “Bye Bill,” and all the adult children say, “Bye, Dad.” I want to take a deep, loud breath and feel very grateful when the daughter says she will end the call herself.

On my way back to my car, I walk past the older unmasked man talking with a woman. I wonder if I should greet them, but then I realize that the phone, and me as its holder, are conduit.  Created by very smart software engineers, livestreaming technology brought us as close as we’re going to get. Held by human hands, fueled by human eyes, joined by human voices, and shared in with human hearts, this family was present at their father and husband’s goodbye ceremony during Covid-19.  

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