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Funerals are the latest part of American life to move online

Isabel Cabrera Galindo was a social woman who loved gardening, going to church and drinking beer. But when the 82-year-old recently died of natural causes, her friends and family were told they couldn’t attend the funeral in person.

Instead, they watched the burial via a livestream. But many either couldn’t figure out how to use it or struggled to hear key parts of it.

Just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged funeral directors to move services online amid the coronavirus outbreak, families like the Galindos are grappling with an unthinkable new normal.

“Being a millennial on the internet, I’ve watched my fair share of livestreamed events, but it was sad for all the wrong reasons,” her 27-year-old grandson Garrett Galindo told CNN Business. “It was sad that my grandmother, a woman known for her love of large gatherings, parties and get-togethers, would have her final service be in front of only 10 of her loved ones. It was sad that even with today’s technology it was so difficult to hear her eulogy, and it was sad knowing we couldn’t share those final moments together as a family.”

Ahead of the service, St. Helens Roman Catholic Church in Phoenix, Arizona, informed the family that attendance should be kept to a minimum due to the outbreak. Isabel Galindo’s three children and their spouses, along with three of her 11 grandchildren, went in person. Garrett’s father used his iPhone on a tripod to broadcast the service online from his private Facebook account.

“There were about 20 or so people watching,” said Garrett Gallindo, who tuned in on his laptop while working from home. “My grandmother had more friends than one could count, but the vast majority of them aren’t too internet or tech savvy. If they were, I would expect that number to be closer to 100.”

The spread of the coronavirus has already canceled some of life’s biggest moments, from delaying funerals to postponing weddings, graduations and baby showers. It’s also forcing Americans to turn to livestreaming or video chat options for events central to our daily lives that would ordinarily revolve around in-person gatherings: school, office meetings, religious services and college tours. Funerals are just the latest, and potentially the most heartbreaking, example of this trend. With more than 7,000 deaths in the US each day, many don’t want to delay celebrating the lives of loved ones.

In an effort to reduce crowds and promote “social distancing,” the CDC advised the National Funeral Directors Association in a webinar to encourage its network to livestream services and burials to help prevent the spread of the virus. As of Sunday, there were at least 32,149 confirmed cases in the US.

“For example, if live-streaming and limiting in-person attendance to immediate family is possible, we encourage that. Additionally, promoting social distancing at the event, regardless of size, and promoting hand hygiene as well is also important,” David Berendes, an epidemiologist with the CDC, said during the briefing.

Outside of the US, some countries, including the UK, have already embraced the trend. In China and Italy, funerals are temporarily banned until future notice and families have been advised to cremate the bodies of those who have died from the illness.

“We have used our livestream for funerals a few times before the COVID-19 outbreak as a way to provide the service to family members who couldn’t travel,” said Pastor Bryan Sabourin of Holy Trinity Parish in Nova Scotia, Canada. “We were talking about expanding this if we had enough people trained to use it and available for this ministry.”

When one of his parishioners recently died, the church and the family decided to livestream the upcoming service on YouTube. “I haven’t received a single negative comment from parishioners about using livestream for this funeral,” said Sabourin, who is currently in self-isolation after recently returning from out of the country.

“I won’t be presiding at the funeral or even attending, which is sad as I knew the family well,” he said ahead of the service. “But my associate pastor will preside and pass on my deepest sympathies. I myself will be watching the livestream.”

However, just as people have criticized livestreamed religious services in the past for being an unsatisfying replica of the in-person experience, some feel the same way about bringing funeral online.

“I’m glad to have seen some portion of [my grandmother’s livestreamed funeral], but otherwise, I’m upset about the whole ordeal,” said Garrett Gallindo. “It’s hard to feel a part of anything when you’re sitting at home.”

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