The New State of Death: Pandemic Death Rituals Everyone Should Get Onboard With

Posted by: Brigitte Ganger in Funeral Planning Resources, Funeral Advice | January 18

COVID-19 has changed life in sweeping and unprecedented ways, and also, sadly, death. Some of the most tragic changes have been in the ways in which we conduct funerals and other mourning rituals.


A funeral is a chance for family, friends, and other members of the community to gather and mourn. Being together to say goodbye helps everyone remember every facet of the deceased person's life. It also affords an opportunity to seek and receive emotional support from others who share grief.


But what do we do when the instinct to connect with others in person is no longer an option? In the interest of public health and saving lives, mourners have had to adapt their death rituals.


The New State of Death


Funerals typically follow a format. Structure around funerals takes out the guesswork for families who are coping with recent loss. Funeral directors, religious and community leaders help guide people as they plan and host funerals, allowing them to focus on their grief and spending time with loved ones in the first days and weeks.


When gatherings are prohibited, it flips funerals as we know them upside-down. These are not normal times, and there is no 'normal funeral' under the circumstances. But that doesn't mean death rituals can't or shouldn't be carried out. Mourners need to mourn, and the dead need to be laid to rest, regardless of the pandemic. People have quickly turned to technology to hold virtual funerals, and offer condolences online.


Our collective social distancing efforts are paying off in more ways than one. With most people staying home and out of trouble, accidental death rates are reported to be dropping in many parts of the world.


Despite the temporary respite from some accidental deaths, death continues to happen and now includes the victims of COVID-19 as well. Families who are unfortunate enough to lose a loved one during the pandemic are finding themselves lost without a roadmap. Many are working their way through grief in isolation.


Pandemic Death Rituals


A novel virus calls for novel death rituals. Here are some of the ways we can mourn and remember, while adhering to social distancing protocols in light of COVID-19.


Holding Funerals


Live streaming has been a part of funerals for many years, but has gained more widespread recognition since the emergence of COVID-19. Families who are spread out across the world, and those with health mobility issues have long taken advantage of streaming technology to attend funerals remotely.


Since the COVID-19 outbreak, every family who has suffered a death has to consider how and if to hold a funeral. Here are some options:


●    Household-only wake


Some funeral homes are allowing the most immediate family members to have a small ceremony or wake, depending on the region. This means only those in the same household can gather to say goodbye to their loved one's body, while maintaining social distance.


An intimate family service can be followed by a larger digital gathering, or a future reception when the pandemic restrictions are lifted. Note that in some locations, even a small gathering of loved ones might not be permitted.


●    Live stream


Live streaming is the easiest way to bring all who knew the deceased person together without delay. Facebook Live, Youtube Live, and other live stream services make it easy to set up a public or private digital funeral environment. Simply share a link or email invitation, set up a laptop, and hold the funeral as you would pre-COVID. If there are to be multiple speakers, ensure the streaming platform you choose allows for it.


●    Video calls


Similar to a live stream, video calling can be used for funerals. If the service is to be more private, a video call might be more suited to the occasion. Zoom, WhatsApp, and other video calling services can be used to host a digital wake or private funeral with family and close friends. Group video calling makes it easy for multiple speakers to share memories, creating a more communal approach to a digital funeral.


Offering Condolences


When news breaks of a death in the community, people reach out to the grieving family with condolences. A condolence can come in the form of a sympathy bouquet, card, letter, phone call, message, or personal visit. COVID-19 has changed the ways people offer and receive condolences to those who are in mourning.


●    Digital condolences


There are many social distancing-approved ways to extend condolences. If the deceased person's life has been honored in an obituary notice, find out if the obituary is online. If it is, sign the online guestbook with a message of condolence. Sending an email or digital message of condolence may seem less formal, but can reduce unnecessary trips outside to the post office during the COVID-19 pandemic.


●    Flowers


Sending flowers is a traditional way to express sympathy for the death of someone who has passed away. Depending on location, it might not be possible to send flowers on time or at all. While some florists are able to stay open for business, many are not. Because of this uncertainty, and the concern that flower delivery isn't essential, people are turning to other means of offering condolences.


Planting a tree in honor of a loved one is the perfect way to offer a sympathy gift. Tree planting services can honor social distancing guidelines while honoring a person's life in a natural, environmentally beneficial way.




Grief will not wait for the pandemic to pass. Unfortunately, that means many people are left grieving in isolation. Without the ability to meet friends, families, and other support people, how can the bereaved find the emotional and practical support they need?


●    Stay connected


Social distancing means physical distancing, not emotional distance. During grief, there are often periods of solitude, as well as periods of connection with others. Use phone and video messaging, email, text, social media, and any other safe way to connect with family, friends, and support groups if needed.


●    Maintain balance


During quarantine, it's easy to skip meals or overeat, allowing each day to slip into another with little heed for the usual schedule. Unfortunately, allowing too much to slide can lead to depression, particularly for those who are grieving.


Most grieving people aren't running at full capacity: Exhaustion, forgetfulness, anxiety, and abrupt changes in mood are all normal in the aftermath of a loss. It's okay to leave a wide berth, but keeping some structure helps. Exercise, healthy eating habits, regular social interaction, and keeping a clean space are ways to retain some semblance of normalcy during bereavement, and it's even more important in isolation.


●    Ask for help when needed


There should never be any shame in asking for help. Physical, mental, and emotional health is important, and when something is going wrong, it's important to speak up and seek help. Even in quarantine, grief counselors are available for a socially distant meeting. Crisis helplines continue to take calls, and there are countless grief support groups that meet on social media. 


Ensuring a Respectful Send-Off


For many families, a digital funeral service just doesn't cut it. Most people don't envision a conference call when they think of a loved one's funeral service. If a digital service does not seem an adequate final send-off, there are several ways to ensure it lives up to the life of the person who has passed.


●    Future service


Make plans for an in-person service in the future. Once the social distancing restrictions are lifted, there is no reason a belated funeral service cannot be held. Let guests know it will be scheduled at a future date. Many guests will be relieved to know that they can participate in funeral rites, and the family can rest assured that a funeral will not be foregone. The benefit to a delayed in-person service is that there will be plenty of time to plan a meaningful and detailed funeral service that truly honors the life of the person who has passed.


●    Permanent monument


Establishing a permanent memorial is a time-tested way to ensure a life is not forgotten. Memorial plaques, benches, statues, trees, and other physical monuments can be purchased or sponsored for display on public or private land. The type and size of the monument will determine the cost, which can range from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands and beyond. Establishing a special place to visit and remember is a way of ensuring the pandemic does not overshadow the death of a loved one. It can also serve as a place to grieve during the quarantine, and after as well.


●    Digital memorial


A digital memorial can act as a centralized location to share the story of a loved one, receive guestbook condolences, and post photos for all to see. Many families treat online obituaries as a digital version of a permanent monument — particularly families who are separated by borders.


Creating Emotional Space for Grief


Don't sacrifice a loved one's final send-off. Adapting or postponing a service, even a small one, is better than canceling the remembrance of a loved one and moving on without taking a moment to mourn. However, the mourning process unfolds, leaving space to grieve alone, and communally.


Funerals can (and are) happening with physical distancing because it's important to stay connected and allow for proper goodbyes. In spite of the trying age of Coronavirus, we must not forget to give our dead the final send-offs they deserve.

1 Comment


John Dyn

February 15

Very helpful blog - JD

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