Bay Area Funeral Homes Offer Virtual Services and Memorials

In this time of isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19, bereaved families find themselves denied the opportunity to bid a final farewell to their deceased loved ones.

With restrictions limiting the size of gatherings, many people face the prospect of forgoing memorials and funerals to honor their dead. Now, three funeral homes – Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo and Chapel of the Chimes in Hayward and Oakland – have started offering interactive and collaborative virtual funeral and memorial services.

Last month, said David Madden, general manager of Hayward’s Chapel of the Chimes, more than 40 families took advantage of the online services, and more virtual funerals and memorials are scheduled for April.

Mourners receive invitations to log into a password-protected website that allows them to watch services remotely. A camera can also follow the coffin to the burial site or crematorium. Mourners have the opportunity to participate in prayers and offer their thoughts and memories of the deceased.

The platform allows up to 500 guests to virtually attend funerals, burials, vigils, shivas and memorials.

The platform relies on Zoom – the same technology many people use to host business meetings, family reunions, and virtual happy hours – but the platform is proprietary, Madden says. It was originally created and developed by and in response to an emerging need for interactive online funeral and memorial experiences.

“A virtual funeral will never replace a hug a grieving needs from family and friends,” says Michael Schimmel, CEO of Sympathy Brands, the parent company of and , “but during this time of social distancing, it allows loved ones to virtually come together to commemorate the deceased and support the grieving family.

Many people, Madden says, feared they could say goodbye to loved ones during these restrictive times and found it difficult to accept that their loved one did not receive a timely and appropriate shipment.

“We’re here to remind people,” Madden says, “that we can do anything we normally would. You absolutely can have a funeral.

Funeral rites are an important part of mourning and healing, Madden says, and for some denominations it’s a requirement.

A. Edward Bell, chaplain at the Pacific Senior Living Community, Oakland Heights, says the funeral ritual is more vital now than at any time in his memory.

“Families are grappling with the grief, trauma and uncertainty that our COVID-19 environment perpetuates,” Bell said. “Families need to experience the ritual, traditions and formality of a service. This allows family members to be present, participate and honor their loved one, and extended family and friends to be a part of the ceremony.

Skylawn and Chapel of the Chimes are part of NorthStar Memorial Group, a private funeral, cremation and commemoration company, which has partnered with Sympathy Brands to develop and bring the virtual services platform to NorthStar locations in the bay area, the west coast and several other states.

Although the service has become a necessity during the COVID-19 crisis, Madden says he expects the use of memorials and virtual funerals to continue once we return to a more normal state, allowing family members and friends scattered across the country and the world to attend funeral services they cannot attend in person.

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Perry A. Thomasson