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Life goes on even when it doesn’t: Streaming a funeral “watch party” in the age of coronavirus

The full scale social distancing order that has closed schools and many businesses, to keep the Milwaukee public “Safer at Home” as a way to contain the spread of COVID-19, has upended many normal habits of life. The condition has become more evident as developing situations require that the old ways be applied to our new reality. That example was made clear on March 31, when I attended my first watch party of a live streaming funeral service.

Back in 2018 I wrote about the 2011 military funeral of my own father, and how my brothers demanded that I use my photojournalism skills to document the event. That surreal experience came after a long series of upheavals in my life, which brought me back to America for the first time in a decade. Social media and selfies were a cultural norm in 2011, and anything that could be imagined was being live streamed. But while this was done for the benefit of a handful of people who could not attend a particular event, it was not the only platform for attendance.

A friend of mine in Milwaukee experienced one of the hardest moments of personal loss recently, with the passing of his mother. Even in an epidemic people continue to have normal health problems. This was one such case.

A little more than a month ago I attended a memorial service in-person at a funeral home. The brother of another dear friend had passed away from a health ailment unrelated to COVID-19, which was not a concern to Americans in Feburary. The room was packed with a gathering family and friends, and it was a very personal connection of love and support to be there. That experience now stands in contrast with the funeral mass that I watched broadcast over Facebook. A beautiful church and a touching memorial that resonated within a nearly empty church and across the Internet.

It is hard to make sense of a situation like that in real time, feeling both connected and extremely distant. Death is a part of life, and people process such losses differently even in the best of times. Terrible things continue to happen within a crisis, whether it is a new normal or a temporary situation. Today is where we stand and where we live. As for me, I do not need to be reminded of death to be keenly aware of the fragility of life. But the watch party does express the resourcefulness that we are capable of in order to honor those who we care about.

There is no adequate way in written or spoken words to articulate the loss that someone feels at a funeral, or in the absence over the time that follows. There is a disbelief and numbness that are counter-balanced by all manner of self-encouragements in order to cope.

My friend who lost his mother participated in the service, and did all the technical work to live stream it. From my experience, taking photos allowed me to be present while having a barrier of protection to step back. I was there, but also not. When I lived overseas I was doing Skype video chats and watch parties – by playing a DVD in sync at both ends – with family back home for years before Facetime and software made such things an interwoven habit. When my father was in the hospital once, I even Skyped in via my brother’s bulky laptop to speak with him and the doctors.

We have heard about funerals that have been live streamed, for distant relatives who are too old to travel. But never do we expect to be live streaming our own family funeral because travel is too unsafe for anyone to leave their home, and no more than a handful of people can gather together in public.

Since I watched church services online for years and was force to do everything remotely because I was separated by miles of ocean, I am familiar with the video-based habits the rest of the community are presently required to adopt. But the difference now is that community. While I was away, I was mostly cut off and and isolated, without having very strong ties to Milwaukee. Today it is more personal for the obvious reason that I have been fully invested in my hometown and those who are a part of my life here. And it makes me wonder how anyone who is not struggling can be so blind to the suffering of others.

Watching the funeral did not enlighten me with a moral lesson. But it was both profound on one end and common place on the other. I often think we need to find meaning in our every experience, perhaps as a way to process the realities of life beyond our control in order to move on. This is a situation where I do not know what the ultimate meaning is. But I understand that it is a part of the steady flow of situations that shape our existence, nudging course corrections over the long life journey that will not end until our own funeral.

There will be a ground swelling of grief as the coronavirus impacts our community with more funerals. Some will be lucky enough to be live streamed, some will proceed without anyone in attendance. I do wish I had some words of comfort for my dear friend and his family, and anyone who will have to experience this kind of loss in the days and weeks ahead.

Much like staying home is a passive effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the most I think I can accomplish is to be a witness of this moment. I can hold the living memory of it for my friend. That is the unspoken beauty of being connected. When my time comes to feel despair, and I can see nothing but an empty void before me, I know my friend will hold up a light for me so that I too can find my way out of the darkness.

The Milwaukee Independent began reporting on what was then referred to as the mysterious “Wuhan Virus” in January. Other local media did not picked-up on the story until many weeks later. Our early features focused on the economic impact, social issues, and health concerns long before other Milwaukee news organizations even mentioned the coronavirus. Over the following months, we have published more than 500 articles about the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Milwaukee residents. This extensive body of work can be found on our COVID-19 Special Report page, a chronological index of links by month. Our editorial voice remains dedicated to informing the public about this health crisis for as long as it persists.
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