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What is Planning a Virtual Memorial Really Like?

  • Three days with a GatheringUs family - from the Washington Post


    6 P.M. MONDAY


    It was 13-year-old Caleb Sun’s idea to have a virtual memorial service for his father, and he always planned on giving a speech. But when it’s his turn to speak at the rehearsal, his Zoom rectangle expanding to fill the computer screens of his relatives and the staff of GatheringUs, the New York company hosting the event, Caleb suddenly turns shy.


    “I’m just going to let my mom talk here,” he says, wrapping an arm around Amy Sun.


    Caleb is decisive and self-assured. He helped pick the music for the service, nixing the Lady Gaga songs suggested by an aunt and giving a thumbs-up to Hootie and the Blowfish, a favorite band of his dad, Barry Sun.


    Yet the past few weeks have been unimaginably difficult for Caleb. The night before his dad’s death from COVID-19 on Dec. 18, father and son were playing video games. Barry, 56, felt a little sick. The flu, he figured. In the morning, he was gone.


    The abrupt loss shook everyone in his life, but no one more than the only child at its center. For every remarkable thing about Barry — the charm that made him a standout salesman, the playfulness that made him the “cool uncle,” the head-turning style — his love for his son stood out most.


    “Amy, are you going to speak also?” the [GatheringUs technical facilitator] asks. She says no; Caleb says yes.


     Amy and Barry separated years ago and split parenting duties. Still, she’s nervous at the prospect of talking about something so personal in front of the dozens who will gather over Zoom two days from now — loved ones scattered from California to Canada to China.


    They move onto other details — how to introduce the friends and relatives who plan to talk, how guests can raise their hands to share stories about Barry. Amy and Caleb can decide later who will speak.


    6 P.M. TUESDAY


    “I’m a mix of excited and nervous, I think,” Caleb Sun says. His dad’s memorial service is less than 24 hours away. Today, he sits with his mom in their living room, where a plaque on the wall says, “May your journey always lead you home.” Their arms are draped around each other’s shoulders. 


    Amy Sun asks what he’s worried about. She leans over to kiss his forehead. “You talking,” he says into her shoulder, and Amy laughs. Caleb grins and adds, “And I don’t want you crying in the middle of it.”


    After last night’s rehearsal, they decided she would be the one to speak at the service. Caleb is already going through so much between grieving for his dad and returning to seventh grade. “It means a lot to him,” Amy says. 


    Earlier, they sent GatheringUs [photos for a] slideshow, packed with pictures of father and son pulled from Barry’s phone and Facebook account. They went through Caleb’s notes, rewording everything to make Amy the speaker. She’s been practicing, but she hasn’t gotten through the words without crying. “Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to hold myself together,” she says, shaking her head.


    They’ll go to bed early tonight. With a good night’s sleep, Amy says, she hopes she won’t be “Miss Crying Pants.” She and Caleb crack up at this. Then, he pulls her in for a hug. “I’ll squeeze you,” he tells her. “I saved the part that’s really going to choke me up for the last part,” Amy says. “Just my — what I wanted to say to Barry. My last words.” Caleb kisses her cheek.




    Barry Sun’s friends and family enter the memorial service in bursts, the tiny boxes lining up across the top of the screen. They join the Zoom call from across the globe, with living rooms and offices and cityscapes as backdrops.


    His sister thanks everyone for being here, saying her big brother’s death from COVID-19 “has highlighted for me the massive devastation it causes, what it takes away from all of us.” She shares memories of growing up — the whole family playing mah-jongg while the smell of Peking duck wafted through the air on holidays; her brother sneaking his smelly judo outfit into her luggage before she left for college.


    A best friend calls for everyone to commit to “Barry-style fun,” recalling the time his buddy pretended to be drunk as a group of friends sipped grape juice — an act so convincing they began to question what they were drinking. A niece remembers “Uncle B” spreading carrots and burnt crescent rolls in the yard on Christmas and waking the kids up with the news that the reindeer had “pooped on the roof and front lawn.”


    Then, it’s Amy Sun’s turn. The first slide of the PowerPoint is light blue, the words, “In loving memory of my dad!!!” in cursive font across the page.


    She flips from 2007, when Caleb was born, to 2020, when Barry died. There are photos of Barry gazing at a baby Caleb, holding him after preschool graduation, smiling beside him in front of oceans and mountains.


    “In closing from Caleb,” Amy says, “my dad loved me very much and I’m going to miss him so much. I will always treasure the memories and all of the love that he showed me.”


    She takes a breath before she continues.


    “And to Barry,” she says, as Caleb puts his head on her shoulder and tells her she’s got this. “We will always love you, honor your memory on every holiday, every birthday, every momentous occasion and every day. And we will miss you dearly, until we meet again.”


    There’s a toast to Barry, and then there’s laughter and tears. Many address Caleb directly. They tell him that his dad talked about him all the time, that they hope to be the kind of father he was.


    In the end, the screen turns to a photo. It’s Barry, beaming.



    This story is part of a longer article and was originally published as A Mass-Casualty Event Everyday by The Washington Post on February 18, 2021.


    If you would like help planning a virtual event, the GatheringUs team will work with you to create a meaningful and personal event and provide facilitation, tech support, audiovisuals and design. We free you up, so you can be fully present with your community. Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with our team to learn more.


    Find more articles on working through grief and organizing virtual memorials here.

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