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Virtual Funerals: An Imperfect Solace for Families of Coronavirus Victims

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Last week, Rachel Spector Peak received a call at nearly 3 a.m as she slept in bed at her Arizona home. It was from the Tennessee hospital where her brother, Dan Spector, had been battling for his life after contracting Covid-19. She missed the call, but called right back because "she knew it couldn’t be good" if they were calling so late.

“The hospital left a voicemail asking me to call,” Rachel told InsideEdition.com. “I called back, and that’s when they told me he had died.”

Dan, 68, had taken an ambulance to the hospital in Memphis on March 25.

When he first fell ill, he thought he had a cold, but when Rachel heard him cough on the phone a few days prior, she assumed he had the novel coronavirus. On the day he was taken in to the hospital, she called hospital staff four times to get an update, but no one could give her any information. The next day, she finally got in touch with a doctor who informed her that her brother was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.

Rachel said medical staff updated her throughout the week and told her Dan was struggling to breathe. He died on March 31. Because their family is spread out, with their brother living in Israel, they wanted to find a way to honor Dan in a way where they could all participate.

They decided on a virtual funeral. The family is Jewish and wanted to bury Dan as soon as possible so they held the funeral on Zoom, the video conferencing tool, the day after he died. Around 90 people gathered on the call to watch the service.

“It was very emotional,” Rachel said. “The rabbi was standing there alone. I heard the eulogies. Some of his friends also spoke on Zoom.”

Rachel said she would have loved to be there but "travel is dangerous right now."

“I saw my brother’s casket before they put it in the ground. Obviously being there in person would have been a lot better, but they could have taken him off in a body bag like they are doing other people,” she said. “The virtual funeral was better than not having a funeral, which would have been heartbreaking. It was important.”

Dan’s funeral was one of many virtual funerals being held across the U.S. as the novel coronavirus continues to keep people in their homes in an effort to social distance and stop the spread of the virus. Loved ones have had to say goodbye to their sick family members through the telephone, on walkie talkies, and sometimes not at all.

Steven Barton, a funeral director at Barton Family Funeral Service in Seattle, Washington, said in the past week they have been allowing only close family members to gravesites as long as they are six feet apart. He said the week before that, they were allowing no one except the funeral director at the site.

“For us, the way we handle bodies hasn’t really changed at all. The way families relate has changed,” Barton told InsideEdition.com. “They are stuck in their homes by themselves so they are left to grieve alone and get consolation from families and friends at home. The ability to give hugs, I mean the physical part is totally gone.”

Barton said he’s already done around 35 funerals for people who have died from Covid-19. He has also been doing a few “direct burials.”

 “It’s something we do usually once in a while, but now it’s all the time," Barton said. "It’s fast. There’s nobody there."

Carlee Seele, who lives in Pennsylvania, said her husband’s grandmother, Angela Costabile, died this month of natural causes. She was 100. The family, which she described as large and Italian, would have usually had a “very big church funeral,” but they had to settle for one on Zoom.

“She was the matriarch of the family so it was very important for everyone to get together to honor her and celebrate her life,” Seele told InsidEdition.com. “The only way to do that with Covid-19 was to have everyone log onto zoom. There were five members of the family who attended the funeral at the gravesite, sitting six feet apart. There was a lot of family who attended on Zoom across the U.S., and even from Italy.”

Seele added that the feeling was “odd,” but a nice alternative to help families get closure.

“I think you’re going to see that it’s the new wave of the future,” she said “I think people will not only be there physically but they will also be there online as well.”

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