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Alternatives to Traditional Funeral Services in the Time of a Pandemic

Ask the Experts
by Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW

Q: We have read and heard about so many deaths in recent weeks and nothing feels normal about how people have had to cope with these losses.  What are alternatives to traditional funerals or rituals during this difficult time?


A:  There are significant psychological, social and spiritual benefits of funeral services for those who are mourning.  The current restrictions due to COVID-19 can complicate the grief of survivors and leave many struggling to find a way to pay tribute or validate the importance of their loved ones, to come together in an expression of support, or to place the loss in a spiritual context that provides comfort. 


In addition to the deaths people are grieving, they are also grieving the loss of the rituals they no longer have to say goodbye to their loved ones.  While alternatives are being practiced and written about all over the world, the biggest obstacle is that families want the support of relatives and friends and to physically come together to reflect on the loss and legacy of the person they loved. Despite this very real limitation, however, there is therapeutic value in finding other rituals to honor your loved one. 


Live Streaming Funerals or Memorial Service:  Live streaming services has been in practice for many years.  It offers family members and friends the chance to share in the collective experience of loss and healing.  Live streaming a service also creates a lasting memorial or a digital time capsule of the event.  This may bring comfort to those who want to re-watch and remember the stories told about their loved one or preserve digital memories for future generations. Live streaming also allows everyone within a large social circle to be engaged in the funeral, giving and receiving support and providing a sense of unity. There is an opportunity to involve loved ones in a meaningful way.  With planning, you can have friends or family members do a reading, sing a song, give a eulogy, or send in a pre-recorded video to watch as part of the service. 


Website Memorials: Services have historically been where reflections and memories have been shared and where support and comfort are extended. However, websites or online memorials are another way to share and preserve memories of your loved ones, and provide an opportunity for storytelling.  You can invite  others to contribute memories, photographs, words of comfort or anything that reflects the person you are honoring.  This can be shared during a virtual service or passed on to others via email or social media.


Invite Others to Share a Ritual: This can be done independently, without using technology, or virtually.  Invite a group to honor their loved one at the same time, in whatever way is meaningful to them.  This shared remembrance can bring connection, and can be as simple as saying a prayer, listening to a favorite song, making a toast, or doing an activity they loved.  Or you may ask people to an online gathering and bring something symbolic to share, like a candle to light, a memory or story, a picture, or a poem. Getting people to contribute in that way can help create a sense of unity. Mark the moment by having someone provide an opening statement about the ritual and explains the purpose.  This can set the tone and  emphasizes that this is a special moment in time.

Create a Personal Memorial:  Create something personal in your home or a special place that reflects your loved one.  It may be a memory box, letters or drawings, photographs or mementos, a collection of objects that were meaningful to them, or planting a tree or flowers.  In creating this space, either alone or with family members, there is an opportunity to reflect or share memories, attend to both grief and gratitude, and begin the process of saying good bye.  The process of pulling this together is both intentional and symbolic, and a personal memorial is an intensely personal, unique and intimate tribute.


Two-Part Rituals:  It is also an option to have a private burial or cremation with the promise of a memorial service in the future.  There will be a time when family and friends can come together, even if you are not able to do it exactly the way you imagined.  The opportunity to remember and honor your loved one is not finite, and you will be able to plan a service that is uniquely meaningful.


There is no doubt that the absence of our usual customs around losing someone we love is disorienting.  It may help to consider the spiritual and emotional functions of a funeral service. 


The ritual of a service provides:

  • Meaning – marking the significance of the life that was lived and helping us find meaning and purpose in our continued living, even in the face of loss.
  • Expression – allowing us to express our inner thoughts and feelings about the life and the loss.
  • Support – bringing together people who care about each other and can provide love and support.
  • Recall – encouraging us to remember the person who died and sharing our memories with others, expressing their  legacy and creating hope for the future.
  • Reality – helping us to truly acknowledge the reality of the loss.


As we navigate the grieving process, however imperfectly, perhaps these values can still guide whatever rituals we use to express our loss and begin the healing process.  Planning a ritual, however humble, provides a sense of control when we feel most vulnerable.   Social psychologist Shira Gabriel suggests that rituals—choreographed events that produce an emotionally laden experience—create a feeling of unity and sacredness that bonds us together with others. With careful planning, creativity and intention there are alternatives to traditional funeral services that may still bring comfort and intimacy – even if they don’t look how we expected.


Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW, is a therapist in private practice in Grosse Pointe.  She works with children, adolescents and adults and helps families with anxiety and mood disorders, grief and loss, ADD/ADHD, adjustment and transition issues and more.  Mary Beth can be reached at 313.408.2180 or or her website  She is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals. 

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