Practicalities: Bearing witness. Digital legacy

We need to recognise the reality of a death, of a life that has ended. Only in that recognition, in that bearing witness, both individually and collectively, can we begin to process our loss, and start to move on.

So in these difficult and frenetic times, how can we do that? if you're a member of a church or other religious body, you will have a structure and people to help you through, even though the pressure on that organisation and its staff may be immense. the informal Death Cafe movement may be active in your area and fulfils many of the same functions as a church for those without traditional faith. however, these too will be under severe pressure.

We need to be able to talk about death. We need to be open and particularly during this crisis, we must be brave enough to confront what may be deep-seated fears and feelings of dread. There is a job to be done here, for the sake of our families. We need to take our dead to the place of saying goodbye. And then we need to live.

Can I begin by pointing you towards two pieces I wrote about conducting funerals? The first, after less than a year of doing this work, is called Summer of the Black Suit and the second, written at the end of last year, is extremely personal and called God, a Guitar and a Grave. At Christmas.

Many of the services I have conducted - most of them - have been in public halls, and have ranged in size from a few dozen to several hundred. In Shetland, where there is no crematorium, what happens afterwards is either an immediate burial, with a short graveside service, often private. Or the body is taken to Aberdeen or other southern city for cremation.

Most people will find it easier to let professionals handle the infrastructure and presentation of a funeral. That's why there are undertakers and ministers, priests and celebrants - folk trained and able to cope with such things at a difficult emotional time. 

It's likely that during the pandemic undertakers and crematoria will offer streamed services, with celebrants of one kind or another conducting them in front of the staff, and family and friends watching and listening remotely. 

But that won't be available for everyone, and not everyone will want to go down that route anyway. This site is for folk who want to handle things themselves.

Speaking of doing things yourself, my understanding is that when someone dies, it is ESSENTIAL that a death certificate is obtained from a doctor. Registration of death is then necessary with the local council's burial team (in Scotland). But after that is done, there is no legal impediment to  you dealing with that body on your own and, in most circumstances, burying the body on your own land (subject to certain restrictions). Cremation, or burial in a public cemetery will need undertakers involved, though.

I'm working on the assumption that anyone reading this will not have easy access to a hall, because public meetings will be banned. 
Perhaps you and close family will count the cost of possible infection and meet together in a house, or convene an online meeting using Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts or other private internet facility. Going public is easy with Facebook Live, Periscope (Twitter) or YouTube. All of these services can be accessed from a smartphone or tablet, or a computer with camera and microphone.

The difference between a streamed service - which can be private, but which essentially is hosted from s single  location - and a closed 'conference call' event, is down to participation. With Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts or other services, everyone involved can take part. So family members or friends on the other side of the world can contribute. YouTube Live has a steeper learning curve, but offers a public live stream which can handle up to 10 contributors in different locations. I haven't used it.

It's possible to have remote contributions to a streamed event, the whole thing being handled by a professional online events company. That's a  wee bit beyond where I want to go with this, though.

If you're going down the DIY digital route, find a family member with digital expertise. USE A TRIPOD or make the smartphone static and secure (bag of rice will do). Phones are best in landscape (horizontal) mode.

There is a degree, I think, of formality and organisation involved in any funeral or memorial service. The haphazard and the chaotic don't work. There needs to be dignity and respect for the dead and the bereaved. This is why the professional involvement of priest, minister or celebrant can be incredibly helpful. But these are, as I keep saying, unusual times.

And there ought to be humour too, if possible. We are after all bearing witness to a life in all its fullness - happy and sad moments, triumphs and defeats.

For actually content, have a look at the other pages on this blog. But for the practicalities of actually having a service:

(1) In the home. It should have a beginning, a middle, an end. No more than 35 minutes in total.There should be food and drink but they should not be served until after the 'service' is over. Everyone should be as sober as possible. Someone should lead things, and prepare a script. Those who are reminiscing or paying tribute should have been given plenty of time to prepare. Music should be carefully chosen and comprise no more than three songs - a beginning, a middle, an end. Normally this would be entry music, music allowing a time for meditation and remembrance, and exit music. But I'm assuming the body has already been cremated or buried, or will be at another time.

Once the formal 'service' is over, and food and drink is served, it can be a good idea to have a playlist of the deceased's favourite songs. (Spotify or iTunes. You'll probably be contravening copyright law and music licensing, but this is not the time to worry about that). It's also good to have either a book of remembrance where folk can write down their memories, or a 'tree of remembrance' using the likes of Post-It Notes. Having a display of pictures and memorabilia is always good.

Prayers and hymns - that's up to you and the wishes of the person was died. The solemnity and beauty of something like the Lord's Prayer is sometimes a piece of great secular power and poetic comfort.

(2) Online. I'm going to send you to a few other sites about this. Remember that you need to let people know that you are going to have an online service - and this can be done through Facebook Events (Facebook Live is by far the easiest way of doing this kind of thing, no matter what your aversion to its politics and policies may - or may not - be). But organising remote contributions to a publicly streamed event, other than using a professional service, is only available easily through You Tube Live - please correct me if I'm wrong. And the learning curve is not gentle.

Crematoria, some churches and some funeral 'chapels' are equipped for live streaming (at extra cost, usually) with a dedicated web address for each funeral.

So, useful sites: it's American and commercial, but there's no need to order an urn, and this is a very clear and simple guide to the various streaming services you can use:

Funeral Guide is an excellent resource, though mainly aimed at undertakers and other professionals. This is a more concerned with professional streaming of funeral services, but it's an interesting point about 'etiquette':

As I said above: For small and private online events, there is Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts and other private internet facilities. Going public is easy with Facebook Live, Periscope (Twitter) or YouTube. All of these services can be accessed from a smartphone or tablet, or a computer with camera and microphone.

If you're going down this route, find a family member with digital expertise. USE A TRIPOD or make the smartphone static and secure (bag of rice will do). Phones are best in landscape (horizontal) mode. Rehearse, particularly regarding sound. Make sure you have recorded the whole thing so people have missed it can watch and listen at another time.

Facebook have a dedicated page on how to Livestream (so do all the other services - look them up).

Live stream on You Tube:

Digital legacy: How to prepare your online life for death

This is becoming more and more important as folks' lives are lived online to a much greater extent. Accessing photographs, passwords, social media and other online accounts can be crucial. Apple have just (June 2021) introduced a digital legacy facility that will allow emergency access to a phone in the vent of someone dying, but there are many apps for both IoS and Android which fulfil the same function. There's a very good artcile in PC Magazine here:

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