Live-streaming a new way mourners ‘attend’ funerals

Oliver Morrison
The Wichita Eagle

Wichita, Kansas — – When Bishop Mark Gilkey’s father died in May, his church held two services because his dad had been the presiding bishop of St. Mark’s Cathedral God in Christ. One service was packed with about 1,000 mourners.

Gilkey turned the key after his father’s casket was closed, an emotional moment for him, he said. After it was over, many of his dad’s friends told him how appreciative they were that they could share that moment with him. But many of those mourners had not actually been at the funeral.

About 1,400 had tuned in to a live stream of the service set up by Jackson Mortuary in Wichita, Kansas. Torrance Jackson, one of the directors, had set up a live feed, a service that he has begun offering grieving families in the past year. Sometimes he’ll set up a video camera himself, or, for larger churches, he’ll connect the video stream to the cameras a church is already using. About 40 families have used the service so far, he said.

Jackson Mortuary is one of two funeral homes in Wichita that said they are offering live streaming. The other, Cozine Memorial Group, has been doing it for more than five years, and business is booming. Dan Welch, one of the directors at Cozine, estimated that around 125 of its 400 funerals are now live streamed on the Internet. And several other funeral homes said they are looking into adopting the service and expect it could catch on in the next few years.

Many of the families that ask for live streaming at funerals have loved ones overseas, they said. Other times, it’s an elderly relative who can’t travel from another part of the U.S. because of an illness. And sometimes families just can’t afford the airfare.

“Families were trying to postpone funerals two weeks out or (waiting to) get paid before they buy the ticket or they just weren’t coming,” Jackson said.

For example, an elderly woman in California couldn’t make it to her only sister’s funeral, so Jackson, despite his limited technical knowledge, tried to figure out a way to connect her to the event. After months of fiddling, he has developed a system in which he connects a video camera through software on his tablet that plays on Jackson’s website, using a hosting site.

The live death market

Callum Winsor, the North American director for One Room, a company that offers streaming services to funeral homes, said his company has picked up about 100 clients in its first year and a half. But in New Zealand, where the company has been working for several years, it streams 5 percent of all funerals, and that number keeps growing.

There are around 2.4 million deaths in the U.S. each year, and the “death services” market is already estimated at more than $20 billion. More than 85 percent of funeral homes are individually owned, often by families, and many of them look for outside help with their technology.

One Room is one of a handful of companies that offer streaming services specifically to funeral homes. But it has had to overcome some resistance. Some funeral homes had bad initial experiences with a webcasting company that charged a lot but performed poorly and went out of business at the end of January.

“(That company) left a really negative taste in people’s mouths,” Winsor said.

Winsor remembers watching a funeral of a relative online years before he started working for One Room. The connection cut out in the middle.

“It was very, very jumpy and it vanished and it never came back,” Winsor said.

This kind of streaming made families angry and even led to lawsuits, he said.

But in October, he watched his great-aunt’s funeral on One Room. He was at a funeral convention and couldn’t get away. But when he went back to his hotel room, he pulled up her funeral on his iPad. He toggled back and forth between a camera that faced the speakers in the front of the chapel and a camera that faced the mourners, where his parents and grandparents were sitting.

Although many people will multitask with other digital tasks, Winsor said, funerals are more compelling than people sometimes think.

“The stories that were told of her travels and all of that, they are really engaging all of your attention,” Winsor said. “That instinct to do something else tends to go away.

“Funeral directors do one thing very, very well: work with and console families on the service,” Winsor said. “Our goal was that they’re able to do that rather than be in the back of the room fiddling with a camera.”

Jackson offers his service for free in the chapel and charges a fee only when he has to pay for a hotspot at a church that doesn’t have Internet. So he’s kept costs down for his customers by doing most of it on his own and is planning on rolling out a new service in which relatives from distant locations will be able to Skype in the chapel and speak during the service.

Cozine, the other funeral home in Wichita that streams, offers it at only its own chapel, but said that in the next few months, it hopes to offer it at church services and other locations without Internet.

The nascent streaming service already faces some competition from Facebook Live and Periscope, streaming services aimed at a mass audience. But Winsor thinks that funeral-specific streaming services will still flourish. One reason is that other services tend to rely on advertising.

“The last thing you want during a funeral is an ad for male enhancement,” Winsor said. “I’ve seen it happen.”

Todd Phifer, the funeral director for Cochran Mortuary & Crematory, said the day is coming when his funeral home will offer streaming services, as well. Like most trends, he said, it takes awhile to filter to the middle of the country.

“Everything trendy starts on the coasts and works it ways into the middle,” Phifer said. “That seems to be the way of life, not just death.”

Digital funeral trends

Like many aspects of life that become digitized and widely available, funeral homes are increasingly expected to take care of a grieving family’s digital needs. It’s common for funeral homes to offer digital spaces to grieve, allow for digital candles to be lit and even provide daily digital affirmations that helps families grieve.

“(The daily affirmation) was made to be a virtual grief counselor, not to replace clergy or an actual counselor,” said Walker Posey, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association. “But a lot of times families won’t be able to admit or understand that they need someone to talk to.”

The more recent turn to digital funeral services is just part of the larger trend of social experiences moving online. But another part of the trend is because more families are choosing to cremate their loved ones, according to Posey.

Cremation is a cheaper option because it doesn’t take up any land. But Posey said that cremations create a need for a new space to remember loved ones, and digital spaces are sometimes filling that void. In 2005, there were two burials for every cremation, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, but they estimate that by 2030, this will be reversed.

“A memorial website actually gives them a place to go to remember and reflect,” Posey said. “Even though it’s a virtual place, it still serves a very similar purpose.”

Ten years ago, it wasn’t that common for a family to ask for a memorial DVD, according to Vincent Philips, the manager at Biglow Funeral Directors of Wichita. But nowadays, many families show up with pictures, and 90 percent of families expect funeral homes to be able to create a slideshow of the loved one’s life for the service on DVD.

One time when a young child died, Posey said, “virtual healing messages” on social media were seen by a pastor in California, who then offered to pay for the child’s entire service. “By that going viral, it helps to create this virtual community of healing,” Posey said.

“Just because they had seen the story, it had touched their heart,” Posey said. “And that never would have happened, it never would’ve been possible had it not been for social media and technology and our funeral home leveraging that technology.”