Are Funerals Passe?

YouTube is changing how we mourn

It’s a cold day in Hell when I agree with a pope, but I have to hand it to Benedict. He may be old (83!), but he and I share the same fears about our Digital Age. In a message to the faithful issued on Monday, His Holiness allowed as how online social networking offers “great opportunity” but also warned that it may further rend our social fabric: “Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world.” (You can friend the pope on Facebook, by the way, if you’re interested.)

I read about the pope’s message on the same day I saw an article about the new trend toward “virtual funerals.” It’s not just memorial services for Michael Jackson that are being streamed online these days; more and more funeral directors are offering the service to regular folks like you and me. And the number of us who take them up on it is growing exponentially. “We are in a YouTube society now,” the founder of online service FuneralOne, H. Joseph Joachim IV, explains. “People are living more than ever online. …” For now, there are still plenty of humans who feel uneasy about replacing an occasion for actual human interaction and shared mourning with a virtual experience. But I’m old and hopelessly out of touch, as so many young people told me, irately, after I wrote about them in December’s issue. It’s not hard to foresee a day when all our most momentous personal occasions—baptisms, brises, weddings, golden anniversary parties—will be held online. Imagine the convenience of not having to travel! Imagine the convenience of just checking in quickly and then checking out again! Who would ever know?

I enjoy funerals, so long as the deceased lived a good, full life. I’ve been to a lot of them. I like seeing generations gathered together; I like hearing people’s memories of those they loved. Besides, in my family, they talk about you if you’re not there. I don’t imagine I’d get the same comforting affirmation about “life going on” from sitting on my sofa and watching Aunt Marianne embrace Cousin Pam from 100 miles away.

The danger, as the pope recognizes, is that the affirmation might be just comforting enough that I’ll willingly forgo a more authentic experience for the sake of attending in my bathrobe and socks—and avoiding messy, raw, unfiltered grief. The virtual world tempts us to make these sorts of trade-offs every day. Benedict encouraged us to ask ourselves “Who is my ‘neighbor’ in this new world?,” lest our immersion in the virtual make us “less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life.” The messenger may be unlikely, but for once, the Vatican hit the nail on the head.