A portrait of the author's grandmotherPRIYA SHAH, Instagram @PRIYASHAHART

In between scrolling through Twitter, while laying in bed, my phone vibrated. Like any other usual day, I expected the contents of the notification to be a friend tagging me in yet another meme. Instead, the email notification invited me to open attachments. The attachments were images of my grandmother resting peacefully in her casket. After briefly surveying the photos, I went back to scrolling through Twitter.

Part of the oddity was anticipating the jolt between two worlds with little warning, through a notification. I’ve never attended a funeral. I didn’t expect my first to be experienced virtually. In a context outside a pandemic, my family and I would’ve been on the first flight back to Zimbabwe. But, like many families, the option to travel was off the table. Viewing those images on my phone felt like an odd way to say goodbye — was it even goodbye? Nothing about my setting or what I was doing on my phone beforehand supplemented what I thought would be the melancholic, solemn atmosphere of an actual funeral. 

Since the early 2000s, the funeral industry has adopted remote funeral broadcasting for the bereaved who cannot participate in person. The Independent reported, “around a fifth of Britain’s 281 crematoriums already offered a live streaming service”. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, broadcasting services have been especially useful as social distancing, and self-quarantine measures have meant family members are unable to attend funerals.

Though The Atlantic reports that “webcasting has gotten better and cheaper over the years”, it’s necessary to recognise that there’s still a tremendous digital divide between the global north and south. My virtual experience consisted of a few videos and pictures because of  Zimbabwe family's inability to “live” stream due to the lack of constant, reliable internet access. Where funeral directors would usually be responsible for the streaming service, I thought about how the need to capture these images to send to family members may have infringed my family members’ own funeral experience, as they had to focus on videography. 

"A reality tethered to the digital world has been ushered in in an uncompromising way which I’ve never felt before, and which feels immutable"

Funerals are a vital part of the grieving process. Even though there are other ways to actualise the stages of grief, not only do funerals symbolically allow people to honour the lives of the deceased, but they also provide the bereaved with some sense of closure, by offering a chance to say goodbye. The tangible experience of a funeral allows for a wholly immersive experience which enables attendees to hear, to see, and to feel. The funeral provides a chance to touch the casket, to view the loved one once more and to hug and console other mourners.

Videos and photos of my grandmother’s video funeral service included her body viewing and the burial itself. Part of the peculiarity of my virtual experience was watching the videos while laying in bed, alone, in-between scrolling through social media. In Shona culture, a sahwria is present at the funeral. The sahwria is somebody that laughs, dances, and even jests with the deceased. The material experience accommodates the theatricality of the ceremony, but I was unable to see and participate in this in person.  I was not required to partake in the show of grief, a form of community-building and support, which encompasses intimate but shared feelings.


Mountain View

Instability, frustration, loss and grief during Covid-19

Nonetheless, the virtual funeral helpfully offers a semblance of reality and peace in these chaotic times, as well as a space to experience grief. In providing an opportunity to have a glimpse into the service, I am thankful that technology has enabled some sense of goodbye. As opposed to concocting images of how my grandmother's funeral would unfold, the pictures helped to facilitate some kind-of reality within the un-reality of her death. In circumstances where the bereaved are miles and miles away, technology that enables virtual goodbyes serves a valuable purpose. 

The cover image is a digital portrait of Gogo (grandma in Shona), which aptly transcribes my experience of honouring her death. Death has been a spectacle for the past seven months. As lockdown measures ease, there’s more room to process the colossal loss of life that was, directly and indirectly, related to this pandemic and how the grieving process has changed immeasurably. People have been grieving the loss of life, normalcy and plans which never came to fruition. Acclimatising to the technological, new ways of experiencing grief, coupled with virtually spectating the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, has felt unreal. But during the lockdown period, a reality tethered to the digital world has been ushered in in an uncompromising way which I’ve never felt before, and which feels immutable.