When my husband died last month, I was as prepared as a person can be. Howard had been afflicted for many years by early-onset dementia and that, as we all know, is a one-way street. What I was totally unprepared for was the lockdown factor. Could we even have a funeral? Yes, we could, as long as we adhered to some rules. And would I like the ceremony live-streamed to those unable to attend? Well yes, I suppose I would.
The offer of live-streaming solved my biggest problem. Howard was an American who had lived for many years in Europe. He had family and friends who couldn’t possibly travel to be with us in person. But all they needed was a Skype account and they’d be able to witness and feel part of the whole 20-minute, socially distanced ceremony. Perfect.
In Ireland funerals are arranged swiftly. There had been a bit of a logjam during the pandemic, with a particular chapel reserved for virus-related deaths, but Howard’s was non-COVID so we were offered a slot for the third day after his death. There was much to decide in a short space of time, not least who to invite to the live-stream. I was advised by the crematorium staff that the platform had its limits: no more than 20 people logging on.
My list of invitees was soon whittled down to below 20 because of the number of people who didn’t have/didn’t want/couldn’t figure out Skype. I turned a deaf ear to those who acted helpless. Land sakes, if I can manage Skype, any idiot can.
The crematorium website carried detailed instructions. Perhaps too detailed. We tend to scan ahead or zone out when we’re reading from a screen.
People had to book a place on the stream and were asked to turn off their own camera and mic so that we, at the crematorium, would only know of their presence by their Skype avatar. That was it. Simple, right?
I’m embarrassed to say I arrived late. Dublin traffic. Lockdown? What lockdown? But they couldn’t start without me because I had the priest with me. As we barreled through the gates of the crematorium, I could see that my dear departed husband, ever a punctual man, was waiting in the back of the hearse.
In the interests of avoiding unnecessary contact, the priest decided to put on his vestments in the car park. A gale was blowing and a surplice is a voluminous garment. For one horrible moment I feared he was going to take off, like a kind of clerical paraglider, and we’d have to call out the coastguard.
Our late arrival didn’t matter. The staff were having a few technical problems co-ordinating the Skype feed, the projection of a photo (sunset over Venice) on to a screen and cueing up Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’. Fair play. These aren’t the kind of skills you’d expect to need working in the funeral business.
This was the moment when I realized some of our guests had skipped reading the live-stream instructions. It was morning, Eastern Daylight Time. Howard’s bereft sister could be seen, sitting in Delaware, drinking her Java. His nephew, in his NYPD squad car, was on a cigarette break, as we could all see. Some people were identifiable only by the rim of an ear or the sidearm of their specs. A granddaughter was wearing cat ears, a sight that melted my heart as much as the fact that she was determined to be there.
One participant, visible only as a flat-top afro, has still to be identified. Whoever they were, they’d logged on as ‘guest’, so no clues there. I’ve watched the recording several times (yes, a recording, available for 30 days, bring your own Kleenex) and I’m still baffled. Perhaps it was some random person who just likes going to funerals. There are such people.
So, witnessed by this motley throng, the coffin was carried in. And here I must digress. Did you know you can rent a coffin? Neither did I. On the day after Howard’s death I picked out the absolute cheapest unadorned model. It was no reflection on what he meant to me. But to speak plainly, it was for incineration and I hate waste.
Then, because I’m also the kind of woman who has to try on a few more pairs of shoes even after I’ve found the ones I’m going to buy, I continued browsing. Which is when I spotted ‘rental casket for cremation’. Wait, what?
A rental is a regular mid-range coffin into which is inserted a cardboard container for the body, just for the duration of the service. Who knew?
Not all crematoria accept these double-shell coffins and funeral companies that offer them don’t exactly promote the option. You’d have to be a beady-eyed shopper like me to notice it. Did I go for it? You bet. It saved me £400 ($504), which I’d much rather spend on a party in memory of the dear man.
Live-streamed, Howard was dispatched according to the old rite in the Book of Common Prayer. Its language is beautiful and uncompromising and seemed fitting in a chapel where the pews had been removed and just 10 chairs placed two meters apart. There were no hymns, no eulogy. Time enough for that when the plague has passed.
It lacked nothing in solemnity and I found the virtual presence of friends and family, coffee mugs, cigarettes, cat ears and all, very comforting. In the midst of life (and live-streaming) we are truly in death.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.