Less than three weeks after Kevin Quigley heard his brother Paul was ill, he found himself crowdsourcing advice on how to livestream a funeral.
On March 11th, the Quigley clan WhatsApp group was buzzing with messages – there was a birthday in the family. Suddenly a photograph appeared of Paul in an oxygen mask, accompanied with a breezy post: “Happy Birthday, Aunt Patricia. I am currently in Lewisham Hospital with a viral chest infection. They're running loads of tests.”
It didn’t occur to Kevin that his brother might be showing symptoms of covid-19: he was not yet 50 and didn’t have any serious health problems. Kevin even joked about Paul's oxygen-mask selfie, saying it made him look like Bane, the villain from the Batman movies. “At that point, it didn't really register that he might be in danger,” Kevin recalled. “He just sounded like his usual cheerful self.” By March 20th, Paul was dead. None of his family had been able to see him in hospital because of the risk of infection.
Kevin was in shock. Like many siblings in busy midlife, Paul and Kevin usually crossed paths only a few times a year. But he never thought he’d have to imagine life without his little brother’s loyal, argumentative, gregarious presence. “I’d always assumed it would be me to go first,” he said.
It was unbearable for the family to think about Paul dying alone. Then it became clear that most of them wouldn’t be able to go to his funeral either: the undertakers wouldn’t allow more than one household to attend because of the pandemic. In the end, Paul’s mother didn’t want any of her six surviving children to travel to London for it in case they got ill too.
“I was going to go down originally, but my mum was adamant and said: ‘please don't’,” said Kevin. "That was when it really hit me. The thought of nobody being at the funeral at all was really hard to come to terms with.”
The idea of somebody’s body being disposed of without ritual, without mourners, is a profoundly jarring one, even in our secular age. While weddings have taken ever-more exotic and unorthodox forms, death rites have changed surprisingly little in the past century. A black hearse, a gathering, some solemn words, a eulogy. Their familiarity provides some kind of consolation in the delirium of grief.
Coronavirus is changing that. Many undertakers and crematoriums are now limiting funeral attendance to no more than ten people; some are setting it at less. Most people can’t go to the service when someone they care about dies, those who can have to sit at least two metres apart, just at the time when they might want to hug each other. At burials, there are no shovels for mourners to help fill the grave.
With more than 7,000 people already dead from coronavirus in Britain, plans are underway for makeshift mortuaries and morgues in council depots, industrial estates and aircraft hangars. But accommodating the emotional needs of death during a pandemic is more complicated and fraught. When the need to cremate bodies during the Ebola crisis in west Africa made traditional burial rites impossible, it sometimes resulted in physical clashes between grieving families and government undertakers. In Britain this week, police had to break up a funeral in the West Midlands when over 60 people tried to attend.
As well as providing a catharsis for mourners, funeral gatherings offer a chance to fit the different jigsaw pieces of a person’s life together. For Paul’s family, this felt particularly important. He’d ended up far away from Greenock, the Scottish shipbuilding town where he grew up. After university, he worked in America before eventually settling in London, where he had a job as a compliance officer at Lloyds TSB. He stayed close to his family: when Kevin’s children were young, Paul would often come round, play with them, and get them over-excited. “They’d be uncontrollable for the next day or two,” Kevin recalled with a laugh.
But there were aspects of Paul's life in London that he preferred to keep to himself. He was gay and like many men who came of age in the 1980s, when attitudes to homosexuality were only just changing, he doesn’t seem to have felt comfortable being completely open with his family about it.
“He was always a very private person, he never really shared much,” said Kevin. “We all had inklings, especially as he got older, but it was sad in a way that he never felt able to open up about it.”
After Paul died, Kevin saw a Facebook tribute to him from one of his London friends, Mark Healey. It turned out Paul had done voluntary work for Healey's charity, which raises awareness of hate crimes against minority communities, and they had both been members of their local LGBT forum.
Kevin scrolled through the post and the responses beneath it, feeling as though he was discovering a new side to his dead brother. “We’d had no idea he was so active in charity,” he said. He contacted Mark Healey, and through him got to know about Paul’s huge network of friends in London, many of whom came from the city’s gay clubbing scene and LGBT activist circles. Without a funeral, it seemed like these two sides of Paul’s life could never come together.
It was the undertakers – not usually a profession known for digital innovation – that got Kevin thinking about a tech workaround. When they were discussing the cremation arrangements, W. Uden and Sons suggested to Kevin that they could have a priest do a short service in the chapel of rest and film it for the family. Kevin liked the idea but thought it would be even better to livestream it.
On March 30th, he put out a plea on Twitter: “Urgent call for help. Can anyone recommend a simple way to live stream an event that will last up to 60 mins to perhaps 100 attendees? It has to be organised remotely and set up by non technical folks (it is a funeral service).”
Most people responding recommended Facebook Live, but Kevin opted in the end for Zoom, the video-conferencing app. Since the coronavirus lockdown, Zoom use has rocketed. Some 200m people are now doing school lessons, Friday-night drinks, and yoga over the app. Kevin, who runs his own design agency for medical and industrial products, was already a regular user.
He prepared assiduously to avoid technical glitches on the day, convening an hour-long online practice meeting for anyone planning to “come” to the funeral. Rather than hosting the Zoom connection from his home in Shrewsbury, he set it up in his nearby office, where the Wi-Fi connection was better.
On the day of the service, the funeral directors set up an iPad in front of the priest; a candle flickered next to a photo of Paul on his left. Kevin brought his wife and two of his children into the office to watch it with him. He’d emailed a PDF of the order of service to other mourners tuning in from London, Glasgow and beyond.
The ceremony itself was brief. A recording of the opera tenor Andrea Bocelli singing “Ave Maria” was played. The priest, Father Richard Plunkett, did a reading from St Paul and made a prayer of commendation. Afterwards, Paul's parents, Gerry and Maureen, gave a brief video address from their lounge in Greenock. Gerry fiddled with the screen at first to check the sound was working but then began to address over 100 online listeners with growing confidence, his clipped Scottish tones wavering only slightly with emotion.
"To all your friends Paul, who are all here and across the world, we have never realised, to be perfectly honest, how popular you were," he said, as Maureen fought back tears. He finished with a line that could have come from a normal funeral, even though no one had technically gone anywhere to attend: “thank you, everybody, for coming.”
The technology through which we now mediate most of our interactions inevitably affects them. Kevin found the computer cameras took away some of the privacy of mourning. “I could see everybody else watching on my screen, and could see their upset faces,” he said. “That felt odd, because normally, at a funeral, you're facing forwards. I could also see an image of myself, crying. But the whole thing was a lot more moving than I was expecting it to be.”
Mark Healey, Paul’s friend from London, was glad to have participated, though he didn’t feel it had the same comforts as real-life interaction. ”At a regular funeral, you arrive, greet people and give them a cuddle or a pat on the shoulder,” he said. “I missed not being able to do all that.”
Healey hadn’t been sure what to wear – there still seems to be no consensus on virtual-funeral etiquette. Kevin and his family decided not to dress for the occasion, while some relatives wore formal funeral attire. Healey went halfway, with a black polo top.
Such small but important details are going to preoccupy thousands of families in the coming weeks. Kevin is compiling a “how-to” guide for families who find themselves in the same position, which he plans to post online. One of his key recommendations is paying for a Zoom subscription so that the event doesn’t get cut off after 40 minutes (the maximum meeting time in the basic package).
He is planning to organise a real life get-together for Paul’s friends and family down in London when the coronavirus restrictions are finally over. "We’re not really sure what the format will be yet, but it would be nice to meet some of the folks from Paul’s life down there,” he said. “So many of them have got in touch with us. It's the one positive thing to have come out of this."