Private Funerals Now Streamed Online

January 27, 2011
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In an age of commemorating birthdays, weddings and anniversaries on Facebook and Twitter, it was perhaps inevitable that live Web-streaming funerals for friends and loved ones would be next.

It is no surprise that the deaths of celebrities, like Michael Jackson, or honored political figures, like the United States diplomat Richard Holbrooke, are promoted as international Web events. So, too, was the memorial service for the six people killed Jan. 8 in Tucson, which had thousands of viewers on the Web.

But now the once-private funerals and memorials of less-noted citizens are also going online.

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Several software companies have created easy-to-use programs to help funeral homes cater to bereaved families. FuneralOne a one-stop shop for online memorials that is based in St. Clair, Mich., has seen the number of funeral homes offering Webcasts increase to 1,053 in 2010, from 126 in 2008 (it also sells digital tribute DVDs).

During that same period, Event by Wire, a competitor in Half Moon Bay, Calif., watched the number of funeral homes live-streaming services jump to 300 from 80. And this month, the Service Corporation International in Houston, which owns 2,000 funeral homes and cemeteries, including the venerable Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said it was conducting a pilot Webcasting program at 16 of its funeral homes.

Traveling to funerals was once an important family rite, but with greater secularity and a mobile population increasingly disconnected from original hometowns, watching a funeral online can seem better than not going to a funeral at all. Social media, too, have redrawn the communal barriers of what is acceptable when relating to parents, siblings, friends and acquaintances.

“We are in a YouTube society now,” said H. Joseph Joachim IV, founder of FuneralOne. “People are living more than ever online, and this reflects that.”

Some of the Web-streamed funerals reflect the large followings gathered by individuals. On Jan. 11, more than 7,000 people watched the Santa Ana, Calif., funeral of Debbie Friedman, an iconic singer whose music combined Jewish text with folk rhythm. It was seen on Ustream, a Web video service, with more than 20,000 viewing it on-demand in the days that followed.

“We intended to watch a few minutes, but ended up watching almost the whole thing,” said Noa Kushner, a rabbi in San Anselmo, Calif., and a fan of Ms. Friedman’s music, who watched the service with a friend at his office. “I was so moved.”

After Stefanie Spielman, a breast cancer activist and the wife of the popular National Football League player Chris Spielman, died in 2009, the Spielmans wanted a private ceremony attended by 900 friends and family members, said Lajos Szabo, the chief strategy officer at Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service in Columbus, Ohio, which arranged the funeral. But they also hoped to accommodate members of the public, who wanted to support the family in its grief. Streamed live and posted online, Ms. Spielman’s funeral has been viewed 4,663 times by 2,989 visitors since November 2009, according to FuneralOne.

Other Webcasts are more obscure, but no less appreciated. Two weeks ago, a friend of Ronald Rich, a volunteer firefighter in Wallace, N.C., died unexpectedly. When Mr. Rich called the mother of his friend to say he could not make the eight-hour drive to the funeral because a snowstorm threatened to close roads, he said the mother offered to send an e-mail invitation so he could watch the service online. Mr. Rich said he watched the funeral: first by himself and a second time with his girlfriend.

“It was comforting to me,” he said, adding that he planned to watch it again with fellow firefighters.

The technology to put funerals online has been around for a decade but was slow to catch on with an industry understandably sensitive to questions of etiquette. Some funeral directors eschew streaming funerals live because they do not want to replace a communal human experience with a solitary digital one, said John Reed, a past president of the National Funeral Directors Association. Other funeral directors worry that if the quality of the video is poor, it will reflect badly on the funeral home.

And the conversation about whether to stream a funeral online can be awkward, particularly if a grief-stricken family is wary of technology. Funeral directors are conservative, Mr. Reed said; privacy, even for the Facebook generation, is paramount. “We don’t jump on the first thing that comes along,” he said.

Still, some funeral directors offer the service for free (Mr. Reed is one of them) while others charge $100 to $300. If a family wants to keep the online service private, those invited get a password that allows access. (Mr. Joachim said 94 percent of the funerals his company Webcast were not password-protected.)

Not all real-life funeral attendees want their images captured online. Irene Dahl, an owner of Dahl Funeral Chapel in Bozeman, Mont., said a young man went to a funeral last year dressed as a woman and asked not to be filmed. “He did not want his mother to know,” Ms. Dahl said. “So we did not face the camera in his direction.”

Ms. Dahl said that nearly one-third of the ceremonies arranged by her funeral home last year

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