Unity Station™ Lets Mourners Offer Drive-Through Condolences

Funeral Industry News May 7, 2020
Union Station Video
Diana Ionescu

Diana is a writer and urbanist based in Los Angeles. Her interests include modern grief rituals, innovative disposition methods, and navigating death and mourning in an increasingly secular society.

Unity Station™ Lets Mourners Offer Drive-Through Condolences

A New York funeral home is adapting to the COVID-19 crisis by implementing an innovative drive-through visitation solution. Called Unity Station™, the device lets mourners offer drive-through condolences by live video stream.

With social distancing measures in place and the virus still ravaging many parts of the country, traditional funerals have become impossible. In New York State, only immediate family members can attend visitations, creating a painful distance between mourning families and the loved ones who normally provide support during times of grief. To bridge the gap between families attending visitation in the funeral home and grieving loved ones who wish they could attend, Townley & Wheeler Funeral Home is using Unity Station™ to let mourners attend via video from a kiosk just outside the funeral home.

Grief can’t wait

Funeral director Kathleen Sandvidge and her co-workers devised the idea after Gov. Cuomo restricted public gatherings, including funerals, to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the state. Two flat-screen monitors equipped with motion sensors, one inside the funeral home and one outside in the parking lot, connect families and mourners. 

“We want to be a beacon of hope,” Sandvidge said. “Postponing grief is not a healthy option.”

Experts agree. 

Postponing mourning, or “incomplete grief,” can lead to emotional and physical symptoms like irritability and anger, continued obsession with loss, behavioral overreaction, addiction, and apathy. Although we all grieve differently, psychologists agree that everyone needs to process their grief in some way before moving on. 

“Grief is going to hang around until we open its box and deal with its contents,” writes Mark Liebenow. “If we ignore grief and put it on the back burner, it will simmer, get thicker and harder, and it will be a royal mess to clean up.”

Loss, says psychologist Tian Dayton, has to be accompanied by a process of feeling and expressing the emotions brought about by grief. These feelings of vulnerability, despair, and disorientation “can go underground,” but “will come back to haunt us” if not processed. The darkness of loss, when handled carefully, leads to renewed commitment to life. Mourning, she says, is a “time-honored path towards the light.”

Bringing tech into the funeral home

Unity Station offers real-time video interactions and lets visitors share memories, drop off sympathy cards, and express their condolences from the safety of their vehicle. Though nothing can replace physical touch during a difficult time, Sandvidge hopes the virtual version of funerals will give mourning families some semblance of comfort and let mourners virtually embrace while staying safe and following public health guidelines.

Sandvidge also hopes that “others will make this an option for their families and keep the spirit of tradition and coming together alive.” Indeed, other funeral service providers have developed similar workarounds to social distancing requirements, including Zoom-powered interactive memorials and drive-through visitations. At San Antonio’s Mission Park Funeral Chapels, mourners can drive up to a window to view the casket or urn and leave recorded messages for the family.

In an industry based on face-to-face interactions and with death tolls on the rise, funeral directors must implement lightning-fast adjustments that shift the majority of their services to a more technology-based, virtual model of care. Unity Station™ is a creative solution to limitations on public gatherings, and can make families enduring loss during this time of social distancing feel less alone. 

For years before the pandemic struck, funeral homes and churches have worked to incorporate technology into funeral services to allow faraway relatives to attend. In Los Angeles, St. Monica’s Catholic Community uses robotic cameras to capture and stream funerals, along with their masses and other services. When families and friends live farther apart than ever, these new avenues for coming together virtually to mourn loss will also serve as useful tools in the post-COVID future.