• December 1, 2021

A Guide to Virtual Funeral Etiquette: How to Pay Your Respects

The dress code for a memorial service or shiva is less formal, but show respect for the occasion, says Diane Gottsman of the Protocol School of Texas. “Even if it is a celebration of life and the mood is meant to be livelier, ask the family before wearing a T-shirt with the deceased’s picture on it, or a Hawaiian print shirt because he or she loved to go to Hawaii.”

Be Present

Heather Young-Leslie, an anthropologist in Edmonton, Canada, describes her first Zoom funeral as being akin to watching the service from the choir loft—she didn’t have to face crying mourners or worry about crying in public or how her facial expressions would affect others. 

One way Young-Leslie’s experience differed from sitting in the choir loft: “I could be paying attention, but I could also be doing other things in my house.”

Pretty much anyone who has attended a virtual event has been tempted to multitask, but doing so during a funeral is a no-no, says Farley, who recommends shutting down other applications, turning off text notifications, and silencing your phone or putting it in another room.

“We’re not talking about a seven-hour thing here,” he says.

Being fully present is especially important for participants, says Aimee Symington, CEO of the etiquette consulting firm Finesse Worldwide. “If they are on video, they need to pay attention and not do things that are distracting. If they are being shown on a screen, they don’t want to be getting up and sitting down, having their dog jump on their lap, answering a phone call.”

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Give Mourners Time to Visit

One of the biggest challenges of pandemic-era end-of-life rituals is that mourners are separated from the community.

“A part of the grieving process is to connect with other people, to talk with other people, but Covid has changed that,” says Reginald Porter, retired senior pastor at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Memphis.

Even at small, in-person funerals at the church, he says, “You are there, you are masked, you are socially distanced, and afterwards, maybe, you go up and nod from a distance, but there is no hugging, no shaking hands. That has changed the whole grieving process and the whole paradigm for grieving during the Covid era.”

Swann recommends setting aside time at a virtual event for people to visit and share stories, something that clients of hers have done successfully. “They were able to share stories of the loved one, and it resulted in some lighthearted moments,” she said. “It helped bring levity to the whole moment.”

Again, the key is to plan ahead. Let people know in advance that they’ll have time to speak or share photos, so that they can prepare. After the service is over, designate a moderator, perhaps an uncle or aunt, to take over. The moderator can create a sign-up using the chat function, invite guests who hope to speak to raise their hands using virtual features, or call on mourners individually to let them know when it’s their time to share.

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