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Funerals from Far-Off

Fifty years ago nobody would have any idea what it meant: “live-streaming a funeral.” But it’s an increasingly common practice. A camera discreetly placed at the back of a chapel or crematorium is turned on; relatives and friends hundreds or thousands of miles away log on to the live-stream using a password; and then the funeral proceeds as normal.

Or is it normal? Technology has introduced something new and funerals are entering a new era. Although most live-streaming at the moment is one-way – people watch what is happening, but don’t speak or interact with those who are present in the flesh – that may change. Either way, some people don’t like the idea of “virtual” attendance at a funeral, that is, of sharing in what is taking place by electronic means, not in the traditional way. They think that funerals are important events that people should make an effort to attend for real, no matter how far away they live.

But there are often good reasons for not attending a funeral for real. A hundred years ago, it would have been taken for granted that relatives living in Australia or America would be unable to attend a funeral in Britain. Sometimes they wouldn’t even hear about the passing of the loved one until after the funeral had taken place. It stayed that way for decades and only began to change in the 1950s, when jet-liners began to travel regularly on the long routes separating the continents. Ordinary people began taking holidays in what were once thought of as extraordinary places, and overseas relatives began attending family events back in the home-country.

But even today distance and expense can keep someone from attending a wedding or funeral – particularly the latter. Life-expectancy has risen steadily, so it’s most likely that someone will pass away at a good age, in their seventies or eighties or even older. Naturally enough, most of their friends and many of their relatives will be at or around the same age, which means that in many cases they be suffering from infirmity and ill-health. It might be hard enough for someone in their seventies to travel from Glasgow to London or vice versa, let alone from Sydney or Los Angeles, if they have moved overseas.

In cases like that, the chance to attend a funeral over the internet can be a considerable comfort. When long-distance travel became commonplace, the pressure to attend important events within a family became stronger. “I have to be there or I know I’ll feel guilty,” was a thought that often occurred to those who lived far away when they heard news of a death and an upcoming funeral. Now the pressure is easing, but does this mean that funerals will take on less importance? Watching an event on a screen can never replace the experience of actually being there.

But the gap is getting smaller, as cameras and sound-reproduction improve in quality all the time. In future, it may even be possible for robots to attend funerals as stand-ins for people who then experience the funeral through the robot’s sensors as though they were actually there. It may even become common for funerals to take place entirely in the electronic world, with only the burial or cremation of the body left to reality. People will attend virtually, experiencing a funeral that meets the exact wishes of the departed, without need to consider expense and practicality. If you want your funeral to take place on the Moon or the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, an e-funeral in the future may allow exactly that.