Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Zoom: Inside My Grandmother’s Virtual Funeral

April 17, 2020
I just attended the most meaningful, spiritual, intimate, and inspiring funeral I’ve ever been to — and I didn’t even need to wear pants. 
We all remember our famous firsts: Our first kiss, first time riding a bike, first apartment - the list goes on and on. Over the past month, life in quarantine has introduced a whole new series of memorable firsts into our lives — and that was definitely the case for me last week, when I attended my very first Zoom funeral. 
My grandmother, Shirley Rothstein, passed away on April 5 after complications from COVID-19. She was 84. She’d been on a ventilator at North Shore Hospital in Long Island, NY for three weeks and fought as hard as she could until the very end. Just like so many other families around the world right now, mine learned just how hard it is to lose a loved one without being able to see them, be with them, or say goodbye in their final days. 
Shirley Rothstein, grandmother of Max Godnick, sporting a brooch at his graduation that featured a childhood photo of him. (Photo courtesy: Max Godnick)Shirley Rothstein, grandmother of Max Godnick, sporting a brooch at his graduation that featured a childhood photo of him. (Photo courtesy: Max Godnick)
As the eldest grandchild and de-facto master of all things tech, it fell upon me to arrange a Zoom memorial service the next day. 
This required, among other things, teaching my relatives what Zoom is, how it’s different from FaceTime and Skype, and working with my grandmother’s synagogue and rabbi to walk them through the process. To my surprise, they were already extremely well-versed in how to pull off a remote funeral. 
Over a thousand Nassau County residents have lost their lives to the pandemic. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise after all. 
While my whole family lives in New York; my mom and her two sisters are spread out from Manhattan to the Long Island suburbs. On the day of the funeral, my two aunts who live in the same neighborhood that my grandmother did, gathered outside the local temple, all separated by 10 feet in accordance with social distancing, as the masked rabbi began the service, and the live stream began. 
Soon, the chat window of the Zoom began filling up with hundreds of messages pouring in from names I hadn’t heard from in years, and others I’d never heard of at all. We take simple tech features like this for granted, but it provided my mom and her sisters with a digital guestbook packed with beautiful tributes to their mother, for them to have and cherish forever. 
I was honored to speak at the memorial from my apartment in West Hollywood, Calif., but I  worried that the distance and remote settings would dilute the moment — somehow making it less meaningful and intimate than I or my grandmother would have expected when she first asked me to eulogize her a few years ago. 
But I soon learned just the opposite. 
As I waited for my turn to speak, I passed the time scrolling through the hundreds of faces joining the call from their living rooms around the world. The moment encapsulated the best of social media playing out in real-time. I was provided a window into my family’s global network of love and support — separated by distance but brought together by a single purpose and Zoom grid view. 
Zoom funeral for Shirley Rothstein. (Photo credit: Max Godnick)Zoom funeral for Shirley Rothstein. (Photo credit: Max Godnick)
The inclusivity of the experience was inspiring, and showed me the democratization of grief that our current situation made possible. The Zoom quickly hit its 300-person limit; even people who, because of distance or means, wouldn’t have been able to attend an in-person memorial in normal times were able to join our virtual one at the click of a button. 
In the Jewish faith, after the funeral comes the tradition of sitting shivah: a process in which mourners and well-wishers join the grieving family in their home, mixing grief and small talk as they share stories, offer support, and of course mooch on some free rugelach. 
My family is extremely interpersonally connected and thrives on being together in our happiest and most trying moments. I feared that my mom and her sisters’ inability to surround themselves with their respective support systems would cause them to suffer even greater pain and reinforce a sense of despondence and isolation in such a dark hour. 
But for the second time in one day, I was again proven wrong. 
My grandmother’s shivah was even more unforgettable than her funeral. Once again, I was treated to a mosaic of friendly loving faces — a welcome sight for anyone in their fourth week of quarantine, grieving or not. With no cheese plate to hide behind or awkward mingling to be done, we were all forced to cut straight to the chase and focus on what mattered: our memories of my grandmother and the joy she brought us all. 
I moderated two hours worth of shared stories, laughs, tears, memories, and prayer — as dozens of the people she loved most waited their turn to take their spot in the Zoom Speaker View spotlight and say their piece. 
A part of me still wishes my grandmother’s legacy could be honored more traditionally, in person, with all the pomp and circumstance of a more conventional memorial. But Shirley Rothstein was no conventional woman — and she would have been overjoyed at the prospect of being able to attend services without having to leave her apartment, change out of her comfiest clothes, and put down her glass of white wine. 
While I hope no one ever has to experience a Zoom funeral themselves, I’m optimistic that if they did — they’d be as pleasantly surprised and uplifted as I was by my experience — thanks to a little bit of tech and a whole lot of heart.
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