When The Atlantic's Lex Berko was invited to virtually attend a stranger's funeral, she understandably felt hesitant — even, perhaps, a little invasive. After she interviewed funeral director Walker Posey on the phenomenon of funeral webcasting for her story "Death on the Internet: The Rise of Livestreaming Funerals," Posey asked Berko if she'd like to experience it for herself — by viewing the webcast of Posey's grandmother's funeral.
As Berko points out, webcasting technology has existed since the '90s, but it wasn't until the early 2000s that it was incorporated into funerals. Celebrity funerals and high-profile memorial services have been televised for years, but now, private funeral live-streaming is accelerating in popularity. The New York Times reports that some funeral homes live-cast ceremonies free of charge, while others offer the service for a $100-300 fee. The trend is on the rise, but is it here to stay? And, if so, what does that mean for how we approach funerals — and for how we say goodbye to those who've passed away?
"I don't think it's a flash in the pan," Berko told us. "I think it fulfills a certain need for people, a need that isn't going to go away. Whether because of distance or health or money, there are always going to be people who can't attend funeral services that they would otherwise like to, and for those people, this is a good offering." One possible negative outcome of funeral telecasting is that it could diminish the importance of physically attending a funeral, but Berko doesn't think that's a concern. "While I think the technology will stick around," she says, "it won't be a substitute for actually showing up, at least not in the near future. Funerals mean so many things to so many people — catharsis, closure, community, and so on. If the funeral matters to you for those reasons and you can make it, you will. You won't settle for the more disconnected experience of a webcast."
"Also, from the looks I got from people when I told them I was researching funeral webcasts, I think we have a long way to go before it even gets to the point where it doesn't seem vaguely creepy," Berko adds. "Plenty of us have watched a celebrity funeral on television or online, but it does seem like a huge jump to do it for a private individual." In the end, the webcast of the funeral that Berko was invited to watch cut out midway though; the computer being used to stream it had fallen asleep.
For now, technical difficulties alone may stymy reliance on webcasting as a method of "attending" funerals. But, as Berko makes clear, lack of community is the bigger barrier to wider acceptance of virtual funeral attendance. When a loved one dies, we don't just seek to remember that person. We reflect on — and celebrate — his or her life in the company of others doing the same. For now, at least, video technology is no replacement.