Even before “social distancing” became part of our lexicon, people have needed a way of taking part in the last rites of their loved ones — even if they could not be physically present to do so.
The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have stolen the ability for many of us to mourn our loved ones properly. Before the coronavirus pandemic, family members might have died while we were abroad, serving in the military, out of state, incarcerated or attending events in remote locations. Still, we needed the ritual of mourning to be able to recognize that we were entering a new stage of our lives, a period without an individual we cherished.
With restrictions on public gatherings and travel as governments try to control the spread of the coronavirus ravaging the world, funerals have also been affected with limits on how many people can attend or go to the grave site. People are still finding ways to show respect for the person who died and say their last goodbyes by watching a live stream or film of a service.
In St. Louis, Mo., James A. Jackson II, (pictured), the owner of Gator Media STL (www.gatormediastl.com), has begun offering “COVID-19 Remembrance Packages,” so that his clients can find a new way of mourning. Jackson has been operating his multimedia production company for five years now, serving companies that need help with social media and digital content.
He said he suddenly found himself with new clientele.
“I got a call a few months back –– maybe about three months back –– to film a funeral for a family who lost a loved one, but one of the siblings was incarcerated,” he said. “And so, they wanted to send a video, and they told me to film it. From there, I got another call from that funeral home, and it was just back to back. I kept getting calls because people were sending the DVD to the incarcerated person that they wanted to see it and, from there, I'm like ‘Wow! I'm filming funerals.’”
Once this year’s coronavirus restrictions came into place in St. Louis, Jackson also started getting calls requesting that he stream funerals for the families of victims of COVID-19. “I'm like, ‘Well, let me create a package or create some services that would assist families at this time,’” Jackson said.
Gator Media STL’s “COVID-19 Remembrance Packages,” include offerings of a live-streamed memorial service; a video reflection film, which highlights family pictures and other memories; bereavement “thank you” videos (to replace thank you cards); and live obituaries, which include images and music with voice-over reading of the obituary. Jackson charges $395 for the live stream service. Other customized packages are also available for additional fees.
“There are different forms of this, especially with what we present and offer,” Jackson explained. “We have a memorial video which entails tons of pictures of the deceased. There’s tons of pictures and memories that we collectively put together and put a soft bed of music up under it and any last comments we put on the screen for the family. Or, they invite me to the funeral home when they have a private viewing or private party, and I'm in the back of the room filming while the minister is giving the last rites, giving words of encouragement and comfort.”
Since the COVID-19 restrictions have been put in place, Gator Media STL has served six families so far in the St. Louis metropolitan area. The company had three more on the books.
“To be able to see it live is what makes our stream unique because we get a picture of the front of the obituary and the back of the obituary and we are able to put the poem and everything that's listed in the obituary, he said. “We’re able to put that on screen during the live stream. So, if the minister says we're going to read the life reflections, that appears on the screen at that time. If the minister says we're going to do a song, you'll see the order of service and the things that are happening listed below on the screen. So, it's like actually watching a live broadcast.”
Carol Thomas Williams, executive director for the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, Inc., which was founded in 1924, said live streaming “is giving families another way to mourn.”
“More and more of our members are doing this—they are even offering graveside streaming services, as well as chapel streaming services,” Williams said.
She works alongside her husband at Carl M. Williams Funeral Directors, Inc. in East Point, Ga. “It depends on where are members are—from state to state—but we’re in Georgia where we’re doing groups of 10 who can attend a service,” Williams said. “If it’s larger than 10, we suggest video streaming as the best thing to do… Otherwise extended family members and friends would not be able to share in the homegoing services.”
She said even before the COVID-19 pandemic their business was offering video streaming. “People were doing it for family members who could not get to the service in time, or people who were in nursing homes or were otherwise not mobile,” Williams said. “We’ve just been offering it even more now.”
“When it’s offered, it depends on where the family members are, as to if they are comfortable with it,” Williams said. “Everyone is not on the internet. Everyone is not with computers or on Facebook. But then, there are some family members who are even making their entire funeral arrangements by internet. So, streaming is giving family members another choice.”
Gator Media STL is also looking into ways to offer its “Remembrance Packages” beyond St. Louis. Jackson said he plans to use connections with media firms in other cities so that he can mentor them about ways to put together a similar remembrance.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, we will have learned a new normal, where everything is virtual, Jackson contends. “And, because of that, I don't think it'll be like on the top of the list of things to do, but it'll be a line item that a funeral service can offer: ‘Hey would you like us to film the service of your loved one?’ he said.
“A lot of people choose a funeral date based on who can attend and when people can get off of work,” Jackson said. “But now, when they know this service is available beyond the COVID-19, I think it will allow families to share and I believe it will be a central thing that moves into the future. I don't see it replacing the funerals, but I do see it being an additional service to families that people will take advantage of.”
— Karen Juanita Carrillo is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and photographer. She specializes in covering African American and Afro-Latino history, literature, and politics.