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This may have been a virtual funeral, but it was still a privilege to attend

A priest (C) reads prayers from the book of funeral rites by the coffin of a deceased person in the cemetery of Grassobbio, Lombardy
Funerals as we normally understand them are no longer allowed 

I have, unusually for me, been to three funerals in the past month. All were sad, yet joyful celebrations of long lives well-lived. But none was quite so unusual as the most recent, which I attended via video at the weekend: a tiny, yet simultaneously hugely attended affair involving close family in the church, but accompanied by a host of virtual friends, thanks to the strange times in which we currently live.

The funeral – of a dear, old family friend, who died (of natural causes) last week, “a great saint and prophet” as my father put it – was held in the church where I got married. It was conducted by the vicar of the small parish in which I grew up; the moment I clicked onto the video link and was beamed into that quiet, peaceful space, the coffin piled with flowers, with a single candle burning at its foot, where dust motes danced in the beams of spring sunshine that flooded onto the golden stone floor, accompanied by the faint sounds of birds from outside, I could almost imagine myself there.

But this was unlike any other funeral I’ve ever been to. There was, at first, an almost voyeuristic sense of intruding on private, raw grief. It felt, initially, uncomfortably intimate – the camera was set up right at the front of the church, so that rather being tucked away in a pew, I was right there with the family. There was no escaping their heartache – no glancing round the church to see who else was there, no sad nods at fellow mourners, no moments of ceiling contemplation. I could hear every sob, see every small, private breakdown.

And yet, as the service progressed, and children and grandchildren gave moving, assured tributes, and delivered eulogies to this dear, beloved man, and sang – lustily, loudly and upliftingly despite their muted number – something else happened: I was transported. Back to the community in which I grew up, back into that old, familiar church, back to pay my respects, despite the fact that I was sitting 200 miles away watching proceedings in my slippers. My parents had gone to sit on a bench outside the church while the service was going on. Knowing they were there, and knowing that when, towards the end of the service, the church clock chimed, and that it was chiming above their heads, gave me a powerful sense of being, somehow, not only present, but connected.

I’ve watched a fair share of church services via video in my time; have regularly listened to sermons live streamed from elsewhere. What you miss, at these times, is both a sense of the collective, and the feeling of occasion. You can click on a video link any old time, wearing any old thing, in any old place. Watching this funeral brought with it the same frustrations: that I wasn’t paying my respects properly; wasn’t wearing suitable clothes; couldn’t deliver or receive comfort via a clasped hand or a hug.

Yet there was an intense sense of reality about this particular service. As the daughter of our friend put it when I spoke to her, “we had this freedom, because it was just us. There was no having to think about guests, or caterers.” And so they could focus fully on celebrating a life well lived and the rest of us had the privilege of joining in.

And at the end of the funeral, when the prayers were said, there was a beautiful stillness. I listened to the birds. I whispered the words of the “Lord’s Prayer”. And I was grateful to have been there, in whatever form I could.