I lost my brother the other day. Less than a month after losing my aunt, it is starting to feel like carelessness. And to be clear, neither of these deaths were down to Covid-19, at least not directly, and this column isn’t about Covid-19, at least not directly. But as I spent some virtual time alone with my brother’s closed casket, I couldn’t help feeling that this was a future that might seem dystopian, but was instead rather comforting.
My brother was my only sibling, so there’s only me now from that family unit. And he lived on the polar opposite side of the world, in DC, and so hard to reach at the best of times from my perch in Singapore. But Covid-19 had somehow rendered that distance meaningless; he could have just as easily been across the causeway in Malaysia, and quarantines would have made it almost impossible to be grave-side.
For me it was deja-vu backing up down the freeway.
When my aunt died in a British nursing home a few weeks ago, I could do nothing but send a few photos of her to a small mailing list of people unconnected to each other except through my aunt. (She wasn’t a real aunt, but as a childhood friend of my mother I had known her better and longer than most of my other relatives, and she had outlived most of those.) Most on the mailing list were not geeks, it’s safe to say, so those photos that did come back were usually upside down or sideways, which could have appeared disrespectful, but which would have amused my aunt. Her funeral was of course a small one, remote and ring-fenced by Covid-19, and I never got to hear what she had meant to others, or even see a photo of where she was buried. I had to sit alone with my grief, and read a few scraps from others on the adhoc mailing list about how the day went.
My brother’s death was quite different. My tech-savvy nephew had arranged for me to to spend some time alone near my brother’s casket via Facetime, which was oddly peaceful. And then, with the help of his friends, he hosted a memorial on Zoom. As the introductory music played over a tasteful drawing, I watched as a list of people signing on flashed up on the screen — by the time it started more than 200 people were aboard. I made it through my own eulogy and then watched dozens of others talk about my brother. Most of the people were those I had never met, but it was moving to hear them talk about him, revealing angles of my brother that were new to me, and refreshing, like uncovering hidden doors in a familiar house.
The tools aren’t perfect of course. I forgot to turn my video off after I had talked, and so I dread to think what I was doing for the rest of the gathering. And there were the inevitable glitches. But most important for me was that people were there, wherever they were from. Distance was no obstacle, and neither was familiarity. You never know who will turn up at a funeral: that’s what makes them so fascinating. The former lovers, the unacknowledged offspring, estranged spouses and feuding relatives, all may turn up. The wake is a more selective affair. But here in a virtual room were dozens of people who had heard about my brother’s death, and who could join in to share the memory of someone without fear of somehow not being close enough. It was egalitarian in the way that wakes usually aren’t; no one has to fuss over who to invite, and whether there are enough chairs or canapés to go around. Instead it becomes a festival, where anyone can pay tribute. No one was left out because of distance, either physical or familial, and that seemed to me to be something rather beautiful.
I don’t know what will happen when Covid-19 is tamed. I’m sure a lot more things will go back to normal than people predict. But if we take one lesson from the pandemic I feel it should be this: whether it’s a funeral, wedding, wake, birthday party, bluechip annual general meeting or parish council conclave, offer a virtual version too. Don’t let physical distance decide who has a seat and a voice. And don’t just put a camera in a corner of the room and live stream it. Give it some thought, as my nephew did for my brother. It made a world of a difference.