When Serge Deruette was preparing the funeral of his mother Mariette, who died on March 11 at the age of 89 from Covid-19, he didn’t want this “damn virus” to decide how he should organise her funeral. “I wanted to give her the funeral that she deserved,” the Belgian told our reporters.
The idea of live-streaming a loved one’s funeral on Facebook or Instagram may seem strange or even shocking, but in these times of lockdown, more and more families are turning to social media to allow people to attend funerals. For them, it is a way to honour the lives of their loved ones.
Even before the start of lockdown in Belgium – the Belgian government issued emergency measures to limit the spread of the virus on March 18 – funeral companies had already been forced to introduce new rules to protect staff. These changed regularly and depended on the region.
While some funeral homes and crematoriums chose to close their doors, others decided to limit the number of people allowed to attend ceremonies (between 10 and 20) and to prohibit any viewing of the deceased’s body. In France, a similar measure was introduced by decree on February 18, but it has since changed.
Belgium’s stipulations made things complicated for Deruette. Between family, friends, colleagues and students, the political science professor from the University of Mons had been expecting around a hundred people to attend his mother’s funeral. Not to mention the fact that the person who went every day to sit at the bedside of his ‘Mam’ during his last days was also suspected of having been infected with the virus.
He quickly realised it was impossible for people to gather. “What’s the point of everyone gathering together if it spreads the virus?” he admitted. He compromised by inviting only his closest family members.
He refused, however, to let the virus win a second time against his mother by depriving her completely of her loved ones. “That would have been another injustice,” he said. Four days before the funeral, he decided to film the funeral and post it on Facebook.
“I spoke with a friend who told me that using a smartphone would be fine,” he said. “But, as I’m not a computer expert, my friend agreed to come and organise the Facebook live.”
The ceremony, which took place on March 14 in the crematorium of Uccle, near Brussels, was broadcast on Deruette’s Facebook account and open to the public.
From their screens, Mariette’s cousins and her childhood friends, who were unable to make the trip, were able to watch Deruette pay tribute to his mother. A slide show, featuring songs by Yvette Horner and Jacques Brel, also retraced the life of this woman who had a passion for cats and an accordion.
Approximately 400 people were able to attend the virtual funeral live, which lasted 15 minutes. “I received about 500 comments,” he said. “It’s heartwarming.” Two days later, 1,200 people had watched the video.
Deruette did not regret his decision to go public. He believed this moment of collective contemplation – even if it is in the virtual realm – matters. On the day of his mother’s funeral, he did admit on Facebook that he was “sad not to be able to hug everyone”.
He intends to remedy this as soon as the lockdown ends. “I promise, we’ll have a party around August 31 for her birthday. She would have turned 90. And this time, you’ll all be invited,” he posted on Facebook.
Facebook funerals existed before lockdown
Deruette is not the only one turning to unconventional methods at this unconventional time. On the same day as his mother’s funeral, March 14, another coronavirus funeral was going out live on social networks.
This one was from Italy, for the funeral of 17-year-old Priscilla. The actual ceremony was attended in person by only a few relatives, who wore masks. But it was watched by more than 9,000 people on the Evangelical church’s Facebook page, according to La Stampa newspaper.
In France, the video of the funeral of Cyril Boulanger, the 38-year-old RATP agent, judo champion and father of two children who died from Covid-19, was viewed more than 16,000 times. “It produced many emotional comments, people wanted to reach out to show solidarity with the family,” reported local news site Courrier Picard on April 16.
However, these online funeral ceremonies are not simply a new by-product of the coronavirus lockdown. “Many bereaved people already use them for various reasons,” Hélène Bourdeloie, a lecturer in information and communication sciences at the Sorbonne University in Paris Nord, told our reporters.
Bourdeloie cites students and people living abroad who can’t make it back to the funeral as examples. “In some cases, for want of any better solution, these online funerals can actually help the mourning process,” she said.
‘It’s incredibly brutal to bury your loved ones via Skype’
But, in this time of lockdown, more and more families are being forced to turn to online funerals. The Nanterre-based Muslim undertaker El Imded has seen this practice double since the start of lockdown.
“We had never experienced this before,” its manager, Lotfi Benabid, told our reporters. “Today, one out of every two families asks us if they can film the ceremonies on WhatsApp or Viber for relatives stuck abroad in Algeria.”
El Imded cannot afford to offer this service to their clients due to lack of staff, so they let the families do it themselves. But some other funeral companies already include it in their services.
According to Happy End, a blog dedicated to sharing information about death and funerals, more than a third of them offer to film or take photos of the ceremony for relatives who do not attend. “Forty-two percent of them share it live on Instagram, 30 percent on Facebook and 5 percent via Skype,” the site reported.
To some, broadcasting this very intimate family moment on social networks may seem intrusive or impersonal. There can be no handshakes, no hugs or kisses that accompany traditional ceremonies.
“In France, people are still very attached to traditional funeral rites,” said Bourdeloie. “It’s incredibly brutal to bury your loved ones by Skype or other social platforms without being able to say goodbye to them physically, without the possibility of touching their hand, their forehead, without being able to give them a last kiss.”