Virtual last goodbyes: How tech is helping us adapt to funerals under COVID-19

With lockdown regulations only allowing 50 mourners at funeral services, for many families, this has created a tough balancing act between choosing who gets to attend in person and ensuring that those who can't attend do not feel excluded.

FILE: Undertakers from the Avbob funeral house arrive at the Doornkop cemetery in Soweto, South Africa, on 21 July 2020 for a funeral. Picture: MARCO LONGARI/AFP

JOHANNESBURG - Comfort, community and closeness. These define what those mourning loved ones need most in their time of grief. However, for almost a year since South Africa went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, this has had to drastically change and we've had adapt to a new way of paying our last respects.

With lockdown regulations only allowing 50 mourners at funeral services, for many families, this has created a tough balancing act between choosing who gets to attend in person and and ensuring that those who can't attend do not feel excluded.

Families have also been urged to bury loved ones who have succumbed to COVID-19 within 72 hours of their passing, meaning those who are far away may not be able to attend.

To try and accommodate everyone and take into consideration all the criteria in place, families are turning to technology to help bridge the gap. Virtual funerals, something previously done by news companies to broadcast widely during the funerals of high-profile people, have become a viable solution not only for mourners but for media businesses who are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.

Mark Donough, a friend, mentor and father figure to many who knew him, was loved and well known in the Athlone, Hanover Park and Mitchells Plain communities in Cape Town.

His passing came as a shock and saddened many who knew him or at some point were touched by his life.

Barry Reid (left) and his close friend Mark Donough (right) who died on 8 January 2021. Picture: Supplied.

Barry Reid (left) and his close friend Mark Donough (right) who died on 8 January 2021. Picture: Supplied.

Planning his funeral, knowing how well-known he was, meant his family and friends had to look at how they could allow all those who wished to be a part of his send-off.

“Mark was an extremely well-known person and we actually would’ve needed a stadium to host his funeral. Sadly, COVID-19 restrictions do not allow more than 50 people at a funeral. We had to have it streamed virtually to allow all the people who couldn’t be there, a part of the celebration of his life. It is definitely the norm nowadays for restrictions", Donough’s long-time friend Barry Reid told Eyewitness News.

“It was very consoling to know that anyone, anywhere in the world, could watch the celebration, and that because it was online, they could watch it in their own time as well. It is also good to know that the risk of spreading the virus is lessened due to there not being more people,” he said.

Reid explained that during the planning of a virtual funeral, it was important to find a reputable company to handle the filming and streaming of the funeral and the planning process.

“By having a company handle it, you won’t have issues that a cellphone social media livestream can have like songs being cut, messages coming through whilst you are filming, signal loss, camera angles etc. It is also important to have a good coordinator who can run the day for you. Ensuring that all pictures and clips are of high quality as well.”

Ryan Kinman runs a media company that ordinarily handles many live events. When lockdown was first announced in March 2020, his company had R500,000 worth of upcoming events cancel on him immediately. This left him with virtually no work lined up, except for a few small conferences and livestream events that allowed him to make some form of income as the lockdown eased through the year.

This, however, didn’t last very long as reverting back to level 3 lockdown in late December resulted in the cancellation of events worth R250,000 scheduled for January.

“Towards the end of last year, I decided to take the last bit of money the company had and invest it into a small live-stream system. It was a Hail Mary for the company,” Kinman told Eyewitness News.

He explained how, at first, the idea of doing business by offering funeral livestreams seemed taboo to many.

“I was accused of stealing from the dead and trying to enrich myself during the pandemic, but eventually people started seeing the benefit of the service. It’s not a service I ever thought I would offer and to be honest, I’m not sure that I want to do it. But I have no choice, I need to feed my family and pay bills.”

Thami Mtwa, whose media company also ground to a halt after lockdown, had already been offering livestreams before restrictions were in place.

In mid-December, he ventured into funeral livestreams, offering packages ranging from R6,500 to R25,000. This, however, is yet to steer his business back onto a path of healthy profit as it’s still a new or uncomfortable concept to many.

“We are still trying to get more access to the market and convince local funeral parlours to add our services within their packages. We also recently started marketing ourselves on all social media platforms,” he said.

With funerals being a red zone for the spread of the virus across the country, both Kinman and Mtwa said while they were concerned and were being as cautious as they could to prevent infection, business must go on for them and their workers to earn a living.

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