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How to Plan a Virtual Funeral Service: A Guide for Families

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    Virtual Funeral Tips



    What is a virtual funeral service? 


    A virtual funeral or virtual memorial service brings family and friends together to celebrate a loved one from afar. An online memorial may combine an in-person gathering at a funeral home, church or other venue with virtual guests. The ceremony may include speeches from family and friends, music and singing, readings, poems, prayers, a group activity, an open mic where everyone can share stories, and even a virtual reception to connect informally in smaller groups.  


    Though social distancing has changed how we honor loved ones after a death, gathering family and friends is even more critical as we face restrictions to our physical contact. A virtual memorial or hybrid (in-person and virtual) gathering, when done well, can help you feel connected and supported to friends and family, while also allowing for more flexibility and creativity than a traditional funeral. Virtual funerals allow everyone the opportunity to participate without geographical boundaries and to give and receive the support they need.


    Virtual memorials are more affordable, with cost savings from the venue and possibly food and flowers. Some friends and family may live far away, or can’t afford to travel or get there in time. Others may have a tight work schedule, pre-existing obligations or medical conditions that make long trips impossible. Virtual funerals remove the obstacles that stand in their way and bring your community together to support each other. Enabling friends and family to show up, even from far away is meaningful to you and them, as you begin the grieving process.



    8 tips for how to plan a virtual memorial service:


    1. Create a Planning Team

    Although many people will gather to celebrate your loved one, there are usually three to five people who are most invested. Who will care most about the content of your celebration? Is it the immediate family? Who has administrative or technical skills to offer? Once you have your team, make sure you consult with them early in the planning process.


    2. Simplify Decision-Making

    When planning an online funeral service, there may be many competing interests. Working through everyone’s ideas and suggestions, while managing your own grief, can become overwhelming. To simplify your decision-making process, use your planning team as a guide. Consider what will make the event most meaningful for them as you make decisions. 


    3. Keep Traditions in New Ways 

    We often rely on family or cultural traditions, religion, or “how we did it before” to plan funeral and memorial events. If everyone were physically gathered together in one place, what would you normally do? 


    Once you determine which traditions to include, give yourself room to create new rituals. You can incorporate things that were meaningful to your loved one. For example: candle lighting, singing, readings of poems and verses, and special toasts. Did she like Twizzlers or the color orange? Ask your guests to bring her favorite food or wear clothes branded with his favorite sports team. Virtual events encourage creativity and flexibility, which will make your event truly memorable and personally meaningful.


    4. Consider the Tone

    Think about the tone you want to set for your gathering. How do you want the occasion to feel? Will it change over time? Is this a celebration of life or traditional homegoing? For example, you could consider a more somber tone for the beginning and move to an uplifting or celebratory tone as the event progresses. Your order of events, program, speakers, and music choices can all help set the tone.


    virtual funeral

    5. Organize Event Contributors 

    Once you have everyone gathered, who will be on screen?  Do you want to include an officiant, clergy, celebrant, singer, or musician? Within the inner circle, who will want to speak, on which topics, and in what order? What time zones are they in and is someone available to coordinate them? Holding a brief rehearsal prior to your event helps ease nerves and work out technical issues. Finally, make sure to have someone available to troubleshoot connection issues that may come up during the event.   


    It’s important to have different people overseeing the online aspect and in-person portion. Managing each requires full attention, so it is best to assign people who are not active participants or actively grieving.  A friend of a family member that can dedicate their attention during the event to the technical details will be more suited than a spouse or close family member of the honoree.


    Program Elements
    Think about the following components to consider including in your event:
    - Master of Ceremonies or someone to deliver opening remarks and introduce speakers
    - Eulogy
    - Additional Speakers
    - Reading / Poem / Scripture
    - Performers (musician or singer)
    - Group Activity: Toast, Candle Lighting, Moment of Silence, Virtually Holding Hands
    - Slideshow


    6. Create and Share Event Materials

    Once you finalize participants, consider how you’d like to communicate with your guests during the event. You can provide an electronic program and share it during the event to keep everyone on the same page. Choose a musical selection to play with the program while guests are joining. Slideshows filled with photos, videos, and favorite music are often part of traditional events and can be meaningfully translated to screen. You may also consider sending an electronic thank you to your guests afterwards with your memorial page link and more information. Whichever elements you create, be sure to plan and practice the technical aspects of communicating with guests ahead of time for a seamless event. 


    7. Include Everyone: Gather All Your Family and Friends 

    Share an announcement or invitations via social media, email or text. You can create a free memorial on GatheringUs and share that page, so everyone can share a story, memories, and photos. 


    Surprisingly, virtual memorial events can feel even more personal than a traditional funeral, especially during Covid when everyone is social distancing with masks. In an online memorial service, you can see each other’s faces up close and can feel “together.” Family and friends can share stories and memories that other friends and family haven't heard, and you can record it so others can watch it later (and you can view it again). Unlike a one-way livestream, a virtual memorial is interactive, so guests can share stories to honor and celebrate your loved one.


    Consider amplifying this sense of connection by encouraging guests to participate in easy ways. What were your loved one’s interests or hobbies—what did he or she love? Consider asking guests to bring an object, article of clothing, or a beverage as a tribute and sharing them during the event, along with stories and memories. Some group activities require audience advance guest preparation. You can ask everyone to bring a candle for a candle lighting ceremony or a plant for a virtual garden shared on the screen. Ask them to bring a favorite beverage for a toast or food for an ice cream social. Everyone can prepare physical signs with a word that describes the honoree. Group activities can include a virtual hand holding, with hands on the side of the screen and a word cloud. Guests can share favorite scary movies for a horror movie fan or wear a personally meaningful color like a favorite sports team. 



    8. Rehearse the Technical Elements

    As you get ready to host a virtual memorial, make sure you are comfortable running the necessary technical elements. This may mean rehearsing muting/unmuting participants, sharing media such as a slideshow and program, checking volume levels and sound feedback, ensuring speakers and guests know how to connect and have good internet speed, and making a plan to troubleshoot any unexpected technical issues during the event. If a group will gather in one location (i.e. funeral home, house of worship, reception hall), you'll need to set up the audiovisual connection between a large screen and the virtual gathering. 


    A couple of days before the event, schedule a rehearsal with all the speakers and performers for the event. Review the order of events, make sure everyone knows their role, and answer questions. During this walkthrough, make sure everyone can log into the event, check microphones, cameras, and lighting to ensure you can hear and see them.


    As guests arrive, you may want to put them in a waiting room. Alternatively, create a program slide with a custom music list while they're waiting. To begin the program, introduce yourself and provide instructions on navigating the technology, explain that guests are muted, and how to shift to gallery or speaker view. 



    The GatheringUs team can work with you to create a meaningful and personal virtual memorial service. We help with planning, facilitation, and tech support. We free you up, so you can be fully present with family and friends. Schedule a free 30-minute consultation.  


    What families are saying

    We LOVED our experience with GatheringUs! The accessibility and ease of communication with our facilitator and other staff was so helpful and reassuring along the way. The format to bring it all together was very well organized and provided flexibility to complete it as time allowed. And then the culmination of it all on the day of my Mom's celebration of life, definitely exceeded our expectations, as it was so thoughtfully orchestrated and well paced from beginning to the end. The ability to connect with friends and family all over the globe in this way, was unprecedented! -- Erika B.


    One of the things I loved was just being able to sit here at my desk with no distractions, no other people around me, having the speaker a foot away from me - it just felt very personal and intimate and I really really concentrated on Cheryl, the pictures, her life story, way more than if I were in a church with a bunch of people around me, sitting where I couldn't see anything. I admit I didn't know what to expect of a virtual memorial; you have shown me that this is a perfect way to honor someone, even in non-pandemic times. Everyone could be there no matter where they live, their age,  their mobility issues, their finances, etc. I can't think of a more inclusive, accessible service. -- Kathy B.


    I thought a virtual service would be an unsatisfactory way to remember her. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They way you made it so seamless for all of us was wonderful. I know most of the attendees wouldn’t have been there if it had been in person. My husband said it was the most intimate and meaningful memorial he’d been to. I have never understood closure before but there was a peace the next day that I hadn’t felt since she got sick. It’s not that I’m not still sad but I don’t burst into tears when someone looks at me. I have been telling everyone about GatheringUs. -- Martha L.


    Find more articles on planning a virtual memorial service, a funeral service, and working through grief here or create a free memorial page.

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