Online Funerals Bring Grieving And Remembrance To More Audiences

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In a softly-lit chapel at the Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz funeral home, a cantor sings near the flag-draped casket of the late Albert M. Joseph. The Jewish service also consists of relatives and friends, sharing stories about his life….

“And as you might’ve guessed, a week or two later, you know what happened," says one man smiling, "one of the kids turned the table on Joe, and put a pie right in his face, and we had that on camera as well…”

Fondness and remembrance…smiles and tears. In most ways, a typical funeral service. Except that I’m not actually there. Nor are all the mourners. Some are in Arizona, Vermont, and Rhode Island…hundreds, even thousands of miles away from the Cleveland Heights service. Albert's daughter, Cindy Saltzer, says the event was also streamed online.

“My family…they did not want to have that, I think they thought it might have been intrusive, or…I’m not really sure what the objection was, but they originally did not want to do it, and I did. I thought it was a good idea.”

Saltzer explains that in the Jewish religion, burials are done quickly. In her late father’s case, it was two days after his passing. This usually means costly, last-minute airfares or hurried, long distance drives for mourners. But in this case, the family worked with the funeral home to arrange a live webcast…and a content-on-demand link, for those who could only see it later.

“And we got wonderful responses, wonderful letters from people who saw it live," recalls Saltzer. "Even one of my dad’s elderly friends…figured out how to do it, and watched it live.”

Michael Kumin is the funeral director who helped arrange the online option. He says after much deliberating among the staff, they decided to install the projectors, screens, and computer equipment two months ago as part of a larger remodeling plan. Kumin notes that out of 80 services since, nearly a third included webcasts…including one where the deceased’s brother Skyped in from Florida.

“And bigger than life, we had the brother sitting on that screen, you know, in front of his computer so we saw him. And he spoke to everyone here. He said the things he wanted to say about his brother that came from his heart, and when it was all over, the rabbi continued, we put the screen back up, and the service continued as if someone had just walked out of the family room to step up on the podium and speak.”

The Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz funeral home achieves this virtual presence through a company called National Webcast. A representative says demand for its services has shot up 250 percent from 2011. And a Michigan provider called FuneralOne says, in 2008, it facilitated roughly 800 webcasts…but for 2011, that number cleared 17,000.

“It is becoming a fixture now, and I think there is a massive revolution in how we’re accessing funeral services,” says Sara Marsden. She's editor-in-chief for U.S. Funerals Online, a consumer guide and trade directory. She says the funeral industry still has some concerns about online funeral services.

“Because they feel it does kind of depersonalize the ritual," she says. "I also think we will see a lot more funeral homes close down, unfortunately. Because I think the more we can access online services, we’re not going to be traveling on the same basis to visit funeral homes.”

Some aren’t as worried. Daniel Berry is a funeral director for Berry and Marten and Sons Funeral Home, with locations in Cleveland and Westlake. He says while they can accommodate requests for online services, the majority of their clients haven’t asked for any.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to replace the value of the human touch, the presence of a friend or family there at the funeral home to comfort and share the grief with the family," says Berry. "Which is why we have calling hours, why we have funeral services, why we memorialize the individuals.”

Still, for Cindy Saltzer, offering her father’s service online made perfect sense. She’s preparing to watch it again someday, when she’s ready. Until then, she's glad it’s available for anyone else who wants to remember the late Albert M. Joseph.

“I emailed it to my clergy, I emailed it to some friends. It was a beautiful service," she says. "My dad was an outstanding man, and I just wanted to share it with people who would’ve wanted to see it.”

“I really don’t see a downside," adds her husband, Michael.

"And since we have the technology, why not take advantage of it, and use it so other people can be a part of it and experience it?”

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