Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell for The Christian Citizen

A close friend of mine died from colon cancer at the beginning of September.

If this wasn’t 2020, if COVID-19 had not interrupted our lives in so many ways, we would gather in person. Friends and family would fly in. We would hug her family and each other. Friends and family members would share memories from a microphone, and there would be tissues in every row.

It is 2020, and COVID-19 kept us from meeting in person. It kept some family from gathering in person. It kept friends from giving each other hugs. However, it didn’t stop us from assembling together and seeing each other’s faces. It didn’t stop us from praying. It didn’t stop us from sharing memories and photos and honoring our friend’s life. It didn’t stop us from caring for the family grieving.

We held our memorial on Zoom. I had the honor of presiding at her memorial service, and despite all the things we could not do, there were things we could do differently because of Zoom that we wouldn’t have if 2020 had not happened. There were people who attended online who might not have been able to travel or get the time off from work to attend.

Another feature that was helpful with Zoom was the chat window. Public speaking is difficult for many people, and some only have a few words they want to share. Throughout the service, people were invited to share in the chat, and many shared their prayers, memories, and kind thoughts. The chat can be easily saved, and those messages shared with the family or can be printed later in a different format—similar to a guest book we might have at an in-person memorial service.

My friend was a mother of two young children. Her children were present for the memorial service on Zoom with their dad, but one of the wonderful decisions we made was to record this service. I was concerned that it might be too much for them, and they might want to leave the room, but would miss all the wonderful memories shared of their mother. We tend to think of taking pictures and recording memorials and funerals as a social faux pas. For this family, for their two young boys, having the recording of everyone sharing these wonderful memories of their mom is a special gift that 2020 has given that they will be able to return to. It is easy to record on Zoom; it is a simple press of a button. The recordings can either be processed to the Zoom cloud or downloaded to your computer.

This memorial service held over 120 accounts in attendance—which means for many of those names that appeared on the screen there was more than one person, as couples and families were on one account together. Early on, a friend offered to help host the Zoom call so that I as the officiant would not have to do the technical side of things, such as letting people in from the waiting room, muting everyone, or playing videos. A second friend monitored the chat and raise hand features during the time when people were invited to share.

My two helpers and I prepared by doing a practice run with the video and sound and tried out all the features to make sure we understood how they worked. I transferred hosting to the first friend so she could run the Zoom meeting. The order of service was sent ahead of time to all the speakers, readers, and the host, so she would know who to unmute in what order. All of the speakers joined fifteen minutes before the service began to make sure we could see and hear them, and also to know what name their Zoom account appeared as (or if they needed to change it) so the host would know who to unmute.

When we opened the service for those who wished to speak to share a few words, we used the raise hand and chat features for people to indicate they would like to speak. The second helper kept track of those names and let the first helper know who was next to unmute.

There were some things we learned quickly as the service began. We began with a slide that had music, much like the music that would play as a prelude to the service while people are being seated. Instead, this was while people were entering from the waiting room. The technical difficulty we did not practice for was that the popups from Zoom to allow people to enter from the waiting room (who joined after the service began) blocked the video from broadcasting. The popups would also stop the video and sound every time. At the last minute, the family ended up sharing their screen to play the video so the host could let people in. We had practiced the video and sound, but had not realized when people came in from the waiting room that it would block the video.

The second thing we learned was the importance of texting off Zoom between the host, officiant, and other helper. It was too easy to lose track in the Zoom chat, even when chatting privately, and miss a message. We used our phone messaging instead and it worked well.

Another suggestion from our experience is to make sure that the Zoom host has (host) next to their name. Some messaged me that they wanted to speak next, so I had to message the host to unmute them. If you indicate this person in the chat and have (host) next to their name, that will help.

Overall, this was one of the most beautiful memorial services I have ever experienced. Because of the features of Zoom, many more people were able and willing to participate. Zoom allowed for more than one way to participate: by voice and by text. Zoom allowed for us to record the service in a way that was respectful and will provide memories for my friend’s family, especially her children.

While there may be many reasons to not hold a Zoom service, and to wait until we can gather in person, there is also a beautiful new way for us to gather collectively, to grieve and share memories, and to honor a person’s life in this COVID-19 world, until we can gather in person. I imagine that in a post-COVID world, we may still want to take advantage of this technology, especially for family and friends who are unable to travel, or have medical conditions that would make it dangerous to be in person. Or, in the case of such tragic losses, where there are young children who may not remember, this gives an opportunity for them to hear the stories when they are older and more mature to understand what has happened, and how much their parent was loved, and is missed.

The Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is pastor of Queen Anne Baptist Church, Seattle, Wash., and ministry associate of social media for the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches USA