Funerals in the Digital Age

by Paul on January 25, 2010

Last week, a 9 year-old boy from our offline church was killed in a horrible accident at school.  I heard the news within hours, via Facebook.  Because of social media, the whole church heard of the tragedy in a matter of hours.  The next day, the church staff called me to figure out the best way to use online tools to update all the volunteers and allow everyone in the church to encourage the family and mourn the loss of this child.  Eventually they asked me to develop a memorial website for the family.

I knew the digital age changed everything, but I hadn’t anticipated the way it would change the way we deal with death.  I’m still in the middle of this horrible situation, but I thought I’d sketch out some thoughts that might help you, and your church, understand how to use online tools to minister to people who’ve lost someone very close to them.

Set Up Two Points of Contact

When someone in your church dies, you need to establish two points of contact: someone to coordinate offline activities and someone to coordinate online activities.  These people will work very closely prior to the funeral and in the months following a funeral.  You need an Online Coordinator and an Offline Coordinator because the skill sets required for each roll are very different.

Since my expertise fits the role of Online Coordinator, the focus of this blog will be on their job.

Print Business Cards

Yes, even in the digital age people still need something to hold.  The card needs to list the names and contact info of the Offline Coordinator and the Online Coordinator.  Give these cards to the family members and their church family.  Tell them, “If anyone asks you a question about the funeral, or says they want to help, give them this card and tell them to call one of the people on the card.  They will be able to take care of it from there.”

Talk with the Family

The Online Coordinator needs to talk with the family or delegate someone else to talk with the family.  They need answers to several questions:

  • How do you spell the full name of (the person who died)?
  • What were their favorite colors?
  • What were their favorite activities?  What did they like to do most?
  • Did they have a favorite book, movie, passage of Scripture, or poem?
  • What was their favorite music?
  • Were they on sites like Facebook or Twitter?  If so, what sites?
  • What do you want people – friends and strangers – to know and remember about (the person who died)?

Get Photos

You need to get digital photos from the family.  Make sure they are of the person who died being around the people and things they loved the most.  Make sure the family understands you are going to post these pictures online.

Many funeral homes show digital slideshows during the viewing or funeral.  They may have already gathered photos for the funeral home.  Ask for a copy of those photos.

Set up a Facebook Fan Page

I prefer Facebook Fan Pages to Facebook Groups.  Facebook Fan Pages are visible to people who do not have a Facebook profile.  Also, when you update the status on a Fan Page, it is visible in the News Feed of everyone who subscribes to that page.  Ask friends of the deceased to spread the word on Facebook about the Fan Page.  Then update the Fan Page with times for prayer vigils, viewings, and for the funeral.  Also, if the family needs meals, the Online Coordinator can work with the Offline Coordinator to use the Facebook Fan Page to let people know what’s needed.

As word get around, people will leave their condolences, prayers, and encouragement on the wall of the Fan Page.  They will also post any pictures they have of the deceased.  They will make the page into an online memorial.  This is an important part of the grieving process.

Set Up an Email Group

Set up an email group in Google or Yahoo to coordinate with volunteers.  This way no one has to remember to hit the ‘Reply to All’ button when they want to update the group.  All the information can go in and through this group.  The Online Coordinator will probably set this group up, but the Offline Coordinator will probably use it most.  (Online Coordinator, make sure and help the Offline Coordinator know what they are doing so you don’t have to do it for them.)

Get Cell Numbers for Texting

The Offline Coordinator should use texting to check up on volunteers and send reminders.  This will save you bunches of time.  And it will keep you from repeating the same, “Yes, the family is struggling but they will make it though.  We just need to keep praying for them and loving on them,” message to everyone, every time you talk with them.  You will get tired of talking to people, trust me, use texting to stretch your endurance and give your ears a break.

Put Out Messages to Their Online Community

If the person who died participated in social media and was part of an online community, you need to let the community know they died.  If possible, get the info to their online accounts from their family members.  If they don’t have that info, track down their online profile and contact one of their friends.  Ask them to put out the message.

The next two things are optional, as time and money allow.

Set Up a Memorial Website

Using the information provided by the family, and the photos of the deceased, set up a Memorial Website.  Get a blog from WordPress or Blogger and chose an appropriate theme.  If you have a lot of good photos, use a photo blog template for the layout.

Friends can come by and leave notes.  You can post links to humanitarian causes valued by the deceased and encourage people to donate to those causes in the deceased’s name.  You can update the blog with details about the funeral and how to get in touch with the Online and Offline Coordinators to volunteer.

I personally don’t like websites that play music when I load them.  In the case of a memorial website, however, I think it’s totally appropriate to stream a playlist of their favorite music from an online service like Pandora (I think they let you do this, but I’m not sure.  I’ve never used the service.  If you have, let me know in the comments.)

Stream the Funeral

Many churches, especially the larger ones, are wired to broadcast their services live online.  Or, their system can be easily modified to do so.  Broadcasting allows those who cannot be physically present to participate in the grieving process and find closure.  Most streaming services are free and allow you to record, so you can embed the video on Facebook, or on the Memorial Website, or both.

Streaming the funeral is going to be very important if the deceased had an extensive online community.

Well, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head.  I will update this post with more info as I walk through this process with my church.  Please leave any suggestions and ideas in the comments.

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