Conducting a Memorial—Online


By Rev. Patti Nakai

I’d like to describe my first experience conducting an online memorial service.

During this time of pandemic and social distancing, I’m writing about this so people know their temples and ministers will do what they can to ensure a proper service for loved ones who pass away or have important memorial date services.

In a recent article, Rev. Ken Yamada wrote of an increasing tendency for families to plan non-religious “celebrations of life” when a loved one passes away. However, many Buddhist families still feel a great need for a solemn ceremony emphasizing the spiritual aspects of honoring a deceased family member.

How can this be done when under a shelter-at-home order because of the highly contagious Corona virus? Funeral homes and religious organizations now are starting to use online technology to bring people together to hear and see each other, even if they’re physically in separate places. This can be accomplished through various technologies incorporating different software programs and equipment.

After Mrs. “S” passed away, her family contacted the Buddhist Temple of Chicago (where I serve) to request a service. I thought of arranging an online pre-cremation last viewing service with the funeral home, but because Mrs. S tested positive for COVID-19, the family immediately was forced to decide between embalming her body or having it cremated. Not being able to finally view her body just added to the sadness. Mrs. S. was living in a nursing home under lockdown when she fell ill and was rushed to a hospital. Family members weren’t allowed to be with her when she died.

We decided on having a “seventh day” memorial service when an inscribed urn would be ready at the funeral home. In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we have various memorial observances following a funeral, including a seventh day service, 49-day service, and annual services conducted after one year, three years, seven years and so forth.

With the temple’s paid Zoom video conferencing account, I set up and hosted the online meeting.

The screen view from the funeral home showed an altar setup consisting of Mrs. S’s urn on a table with her framed photo and a flower arrangement. The screen view of me showed me in my home, wearing robes and sitting with my face looking towards the screen of the altar, replicating how I’d be sitting if the service were conducted at the temple.

Mrs. S’s two adult daughters were with their respective family members in their separate homes, even though they didn’t live far apart. Each group set up their chairs facing the camera.

In this age, when people do video conference meetings wearing casual clothes or even their pajamas, I was impressed that everyone who attended the online memorial service was dressed in formal funeral wear – men and boys in black suits; women and girls in black dresses.

Following basics of a formal Jodo Shinshu ceremony, I began chanting a Buddhist sutra. As I chanted, family members one-by-one walked up to offer incense in their homes, starting in order with the oldest daughter’s family, followed by the younger daughter’s family. Then as I would do at a normal service, I faced the family members and formally read Rennyo Shonin’s letter, “White Ashes,” which was written 500 years ago and now is traditionally read at funerals and memorial services. Afterwards, I stood up and gave a Dharma message to the grieving families.

Although I have no scientific proof, I told them that Mrs. S somehow could feel her family was with her in those last moments of her life, even if they physically couldn’t be at her side. The daughters had told me they feared their mother must have felt abandoned because no one came to the hospital. In ways we can’t explain rationally, I said, Mrs. S surely understood why you couldn’t be there, but in her heart, surely felt your presence in spirit.

I’ve seen close friends and family members become anxious as death approached, but as they lost consciousness, their faces always showed a sense of peacefulness. In those last moments, they seemed to be freed from worries and fears, knowing they’re embraced by a larger Life that includes loved ones past and present. In that sense, I don’t think it was a stretch for me to assure the daughters their mother did not feel abandoned by her family when she died.

After my talk, we recited together the nembutsu, the words “Namu Amida Butsu” (“I bow down to the Unbounded Light and Life”). For remembrances, each grandchild stood up and offered words of appreciation to their grandmother. For them, participating and feeling they’re part of the ceremony were important, making the online service a touching experience and dignified way of parting with a loved one that I think a celebration of life sorely lacks.

I don’t think an online memorial service could ever provide the same feeling of intimacy as bringing everyone together in one place before an altar with a loved one’s remains. But the family of Mrs. S and the funeral home helped me feel that this online service was the best approximation possible, given the restrictions we are living with. I give the family much credit for wanting to do this ceremony despite the tricky technology involved (it took a while for all of us to get audio and video connected on our computers).

By taking this important ritual with all the seriousness of a traditional ceremony, the family made this improvised online service function as a structured occasion to mourn and reflect, giving a sense of order to their days filled with shocked thoughts and sad feelings, made even more stressful with the pervasive threat of the virus that had taken their loved one. At this time of high anxiety, we don’t need a celebration of life as much as we need the solemnity of traditional Buddhist rituals and teachings, even if they’re online.

-Rev. Patti Nakai is resident minister of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago.