“Always go to other people’s funerals,” advised Yogi Berra, “otherwise they won’t come to yours”.
The list of other people’s funerals I have not attended is growing. Early in March my godfather died at 94 in London. A fortnight later a contemporary died in Scotland, six weeks after the death of his wife. None of these fatalities, as it happens, were directly from Covid. Pneumonia, cancer, a fall in old age, have not taken a vacation during the pandemic.
We are particularly diminished by the sudden loss of our friends in Scotland. We began our careers and our families together, living and working alongside each other for three decades, and then regularly exchanging visits as our paths diverged. In John Donne’s terms, a full promontory has been washed away from our lives.
In each case, the lockdown has prevented us from attending the final ceremony. In Scotland the current rules permit a congregation of no more than twenty. They must not sing, for fear of infection, although by arrangement a bagpiper is allowed. What science has determined that the coronavirus will be safely contained within a bagpipe I know not. In any case our friend, from a professional Edinburgh family, a world-class Russian linguist in his working life, had, like many Scots, no sympathy at all for kilts, tartans, bagpipes, and, at least until Brexit, the nationalist movement.
Instead we depend on Obitus, which describes itself as ‘a leading UK provider of bereavement technology services.’ The firm was apparently founded a decade ago, an indication that virtual mourning was not invented by Covid. It has expanded in the last year, working with funeral directors to connect the congregations unable to attend. We sit at home, three hundred miles away, equipped with a login and a password, and five minutes before the ceremony is due to begin, an empty, unnamed, funeral chapel appears on our screen.
It is easy to criticise the proceedings. There is one fixed camera at the rear of the chapel, transmitting an unchanging view of the backs of twenty mourners. The sound quality is indifferent, the visual effects non-existent. After half an hour the congregation leaves separately, unable to attend a wake larger than six people, and we close the lid on the laptop. In a week’s time we will repeat the process for my godfather.
Obitus fully occupies the digital universe, with all its perils. The small print of the contract specifies that, ‘in particular, we will not be liable for any damage or loss caused by a distributed denial-of-service attack, any viruses trojans, worms, logic bombs, keystroke loggers, spyware, adware or other material which is malicious or technologically harmful that may infect your computer, peripheral computer equipment, computer programs, data or other proprietary material as a result of your use of the Website or you downloading any material posted or sold on the Website or from any website linked to it.’ Not problems faced by a clergyman with his prayer book.
But as in so many Covid contexts, the technology is better, much better, than nothing at all. Whilst the long-standing debate about the threat posed to privacy by digital communication becomes ever more urgent, in the pandemic computer screens have in all kinds of ways helped to keep families and networks of friends together. And they need not be the final means of bidding farewell. In the case of our Scottish friends, a more relaxed memorial is planned for when physical gatherings are once more possible.
That is what we must do when the pandemic is over. We will spend our days celebrating the lives of those we have lost.