I buried my grandfather last week.
But as I lowered his coffin into the ground, reciting the mandatory Islamic burial prayers, my phone buzzed repeatedly with messages. None of those message were friends offering condolences. Rather, they were family members demanding that I reposition the camera on my phone. “Can you show me a better view of the coffin?” one of my aunts asked. An uncle from Switzerland, whom I’d spoken to only by phone as a kid, messaged me a number of times to ask if I could lift the lid off the coffin so he could see my grandfather’s body. Meanwhile, as I recited surah yasin, the final Arabic prayer before the setting of the coffin, a fresh torrent of messages arrived from other relatives around the world, urging me to move closer toward the grave, an area with better lighting.
“Can you take a picture of the coffin and send it to me?” a distant aunt messaged me on WhatsApp. I felt uncomfortable about it, but I did it anyway in the hope that it would offer her some solace (she and my grandfather were close).
The coronavirus has obviously changed every aspect of life, but it’s disrupted death and the rituals that are so fundamental to burial, too. And while there’s been a boom in livestreamed funeral services, religious leaders are pondering a much deeper question: Are the unorthodox methods of burying a body during quarantine legitimate in the eyes of God?
“When my 92-year-old grandma died, there were a lot of arguments among my family, who are Greek Cypriot,” says 27-year-old Dimitri, a biochemist in London. His grandmother didn’t die because of coronavirus, but she did pass away in the midst of the pandemic. “We couldn’t have a wake, or have anyone come to the family home to offer prayers,” he continues. “Even with immediate family who were able to come, we had to organize our house so people were separated from each other to limit the risk of infection. I know that there are a lot of family members who were angry that they weren’t invited, and some who believe we should have held prayers at home per usual, because God would protect us.”
Like me, Dimitri had tech-related complications at the funeral as well. He had to “teach family in Greece how to use Zoom and how to turn their audio off to avoid talking over other people,” while organizing a set time to hold the funeral across different time zones and working out the logistics of how to film his grandmother’s body in a way that was both “respectful and immersive.” “Even when we did get everyone together, I had uncles in Greece who hadn’t seen their family [in the U.K.] for years and just started talking or arguing about something that happened a long time ago,” he says. “It was a huge mess.”
On the less spiritual side of things, in a lot of ways, the pandemic is cementing a direction in which the funeral business was already heading. In fact, funeral livestreaming has become so accepted in the U.K. that the country’s body for funeral directors offers official guidelines on how to do so with respect and proper etiquette, and larger funeral companies offer professional-grade video content.
I have to say, though, I’m uncomfortable with much of this. In the religious household I grew up in, funerals were considered both austere and morose. Normally, my grandfather’s body would have been seen only by male members of the congregation, and under Islamic rites, gone through a strict process of washing, cleaning and wrapping. Instead, his funeral became a curiosity as much as anything else. It was the first time many women in my family saw the dead body of a man, as well as the first funeral they attended (under Islamic tradition, only men go to funerals).
In fairness, every culture isn’t the same. “In countries like Mexico, Nepal and Thailand, there’s a different concept of what it means to die,” explains Erica Buist, a writer for the Guardian whose upcoming book, This Party’s Dead, explores the concept of death festivals across the world. “The festivals celebrate not just the person they were in the past, but also the person they are in the present, which means that for a lot of cultures, death isn’t necessarily a sad thing.”
At a Mexican death festival Buist attended, she describes how taking pictures and videos of dead bodies, which were on public display, was actively encouraged. “They see the dead as living spirits who partake in celebrations and who still have an evolving relationship with the living.” It’s unrealistic to think that this will become the norm in the U.S. or U.K., but Zoom and other conferencing technology has allowed for a greater sense of participation in a funeral, especially for those who’d normally be shut out (like my female relatives). “It’s probably the first time people who have to follow particular rules and conventions can organize in the way that they want to remember and to grieve, which can be a powerful thing,” Buist says.
It’s worth noting that other pandemics have changed how we honor our dead. Specifically, Stacy Hackner, a London-based bioarchaeologist, points out that the 1918 Spanish Flu led to an acceptance of cremation because of how overcrowded cemeteries were. That said, the bigger issue for families was that enforced quarantines and the closure of holy spaces meant that they “were forced to live with the collective grief and trauma without the ability to share and mourn with their communities” — a trauma that had lasting effects on both them and society at large.
To that end, Hackner believes that Zoom funerals help guard against this, especially with regard to how easily it can connect us to others (no matter where in the world they might be). “At a time when we’re all discovering the importance of a local community through mutual aid groups and neighborhood aid networks, knowing that you have someone real to talk to and grieve with is really important,” she explains. “It’s something we haven’t really seen before historically.”
As for my extended family, for the next 30 nights, 40 or so of us will gather on Zoom each evening to recite prayers for my grandfather. And though it can be tricky to get family members to stop talking over one another — or remind them that this isn’t the right time to talk business — Zoom has not only brought us together but allowed us to take charge of our own grief.
So while it’s far from tradition, it definitely feels like a change for the better — and maybe, dare I say, the start of a new ritual.