Notes From a Videochat Memorial

Will these Zoom funerals be anything more than empty containers for unshed tears?


We learned the news of Charlie’s heart attack over the phone. Charlie was my father-in-law, and he had heart troubles, both medical and nonmedical. One Sunday morning, he simply did not wake up. On Monday, as a pandemic started sweeping across the country, my husband bought a plane ticket from New York, where we live, to California to see his brother and sister, so that they could mourn together.

But by the time the following weekend rolled around, he had canceled the ticket. After a week, traveling across the country seemed reckless. And so we attended Charlie’s memorial on Zoom.

My husband and I and our three children put on our mourning clothes and sat on our couch at the appointed time. Charlie didn’t want any pomp and circumstance. A nonreligious Buddhist from Thailand, he didn’t want anyone to make a fuss. So my brother-in-law and sister-in-law were hosting a small gathering at the family house in Los Angeles, with social distancing, but with a buffet. This was before buffets and gatherings of more than five people were banned, back when that eventuality seemed impossible. My in-laws placed a laptop in the back of the living room in California. And in Brooklyn, we watched speaker after speaker eulogize Charlie on a small screen.

I watched my brother-in-law, Marcus, speak at a little podium next to a large blown-up photograph of Charlie. Marcus broke up in the middle of his speech. I looked at my children, worried that they might be sad. They looked impassively at the screen. One of them asked for popcorn.

Memorials are rituals with people and food. They are hugging and drinking and lasagna. They are waiting for someone to share a story while you sit and cry, or sit, eat, and drink. They are gathering, and presence, and showing up. That night, after we attended Charlie’s memorial from our living room, our friend and downstairs neighbor brought over some lasagna. He showed up. (This was before New Yorkers weren’t allowed to bring one another lasagna over the threshold.) We shared some whiskey and stories. We talked about complicated grief. At the Zoom memorial, I felt like a bystander to grief; at our own home, with a neighbor, in person, I felt like a person in mourning.

How will we show up for one another during the memorials that are coming? How will we feed one another through a screen? Will these Zoom memorials be anything more than empty containers for unshed tears? How many unshed tears will there be during this time, and where will they go?

Ritual conjures the invisible, and the invisible is hard to feel on a Zoom call. But I fear that we are going to have to get used to the idea of rituals on camera in this age of quarantine. After all, isn’t some shared sense of the grief better than none, even though it is so much harder to feel viscerally through a screen?

In Japan a few years back, a businessman started the practice of rui-katsu, or “tear seeking” events. People came together to watch sad videos designed to make them cry, the thought being that they would feel better after crying in public. The technical term for that is more ancient—it is catharsis. Ritual catharsis demands the physical—bodies, tears, proximity. How will we have catharsis in this time of collective mourning when we cannot be near one another?

Some people want to grieve privately, and on their own time. Some people prefer that to public demonstrations of shared grief. But as a playwright, I appreciate catharsis. I have been grateful to weep at funerals, with people I love at my elbow. But did I weep on Zoom? I was aware that my weeping would be broadcast, and I kept my face impassive.

Nor did my children weep at their grandfather’s Zoom memorial. Perhaps they did not weep because they did not know their grandfather well, because their grandfather elected to be near impossible to get to know. Or perhaps they did not weep because they were watching a ritual through a screen.

After the speeches at my father-in-law’s memorial, my husband’s family and family friends went to eat together at the buffet in the dining room. The living room cleared. A couple of old neighbors said hello to us—the digital exiles on the computer—as they passed by on their way to the buffet. For a long moment, we watched an empty room on a screen.

Two weeks after losing my father-in-law, our friend (the wife of the lasagna-bearer) gave me the link to celebrate a havdalah at 8:15 p.m. with her wider Jewish community on Zoom. Havdalah is a ritual that ends the period of rest signified by Shabbat and begins the new week. I’ve loved celebrating havdalah at my neighbor’s house, watching her sing and light the candle, and smelling the sweet spices she passes around. Smell is a harbinger of presence. You can’t televise the smell of cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom. I missed the smell of sweet spices, but watching 80 people sing together on a screen did my soul good. Marking the weeks and days during this time of slowness is difficult, and I was grateful for something more than a pill counter to remind me that Sunday was tomorrow.

I’ve always been attracted to the Jewish faith, although I am not Jewish. That might be because I have always admired the sweetness of ritual in the home. As someone who grew up Catholic, ritual was allowed only at church, performed by the experts—and I was envious of the at-home rituals of my Jewish friends. A faith that endured historical exile required the home to be a refuge for the lighting of candles.

Now the churches are shut, the temples are shut, the synagogues are shut, all over the country, all across the world. The sites of ritual and mourning are empty. Our homes will be the place where we create rituals, where we mourn, where we sit and are transported to our far-flung loved ones through the digital ether.

We are all in a kind of exile now. Rituals may well be the things that will help us feel the beginnings, endings, and middles: the beginning of a week, the end of a life, the long middle of our self-isolation. We still mark the passing time. May we mark it well.