Funerals go virtual in the pandemic. Here's how to plan one with meaning and honor the dead

A small contingent of Alicia de Artola's family gathers to pay tribute to her late grandmother. More than 100 others participated in the Mass online.

(CNN)On a recent Sunday, Alicia de Artola sat watching a funeral for her maternal grandmother, Martha Palacios, who had just died at the age of 96.

Because even modest gatherings for any purpose are banned all over the country, this funeral was almost entirely online. About 50 people or households were present and participating in the funeral via the Zoom call, with another 50 or so tuning in to watch the simultaneous Facebook livestream of the proceedings, she said.
The 30-year-old writer and podcaster, based in Los Angeles, was close with her grandmother. She helped out as a caregiver in her later years. Now she actively helped plan many aspects of the virtual service in her memory.
    "When we found out we couldn't do something graveside, we decided to do it virtually," she said. "It was important for us to do the ritual."
      They laid out a hope chest -- adorned with roses -- in the center of their living room, symbolizing a casket.
        The family is Roman Catholic, and an uncle who is a priest performed the "order of the Mass as it would normally be," she said. "We wanted it to feel as polished as possible."
        Alicia de Artola said the virtual funeral for her grandmother drew about 50 participants or households via Zoom, and another 50 or so via a Facebook livestream at the same time.

        Make the virtual funeral feel 'official'

          The whole family used their imagination and skills to make the virtual funeral as immersive as possible, so they could suspend disbelief during the ceremony.
          As a podcaster, de Artola contributed her sound equipment and audio expertise to the production. Another family friend who is a professional church singer contributed a musical interlude, and another stepped in with an Irish blessing to close the virtual service.
          "Most of the people on the call waited to say something. After it was over, we called on people," she said. "It was essentially a virtual receiving line."
          She didn't realize it at the time, but she would soon after attend a second virtual funeral. A few days later, her paternal grandmother died. For that funeral, she was less an active planner and participated more as a family mourner, and despite the distance, she said she found value in seeing her aunts and cousins on screen.
          "What are the chances that two of my remaining grandparents would die in a two-week period during a pandemic, and not from the thing causing a pandemic?" she wondered.
          As nearly every memorial service must now incorporate an online component, the National Funeral Directors Association is offering guidance on how to plan and host a virtual funeral.
          A small group of mourners gathered for a home Mass honoring Martha Palacios. More than 100 others participated in the service online.

          Virtual funerals are everywhere now

          Dutch Nie, a funeral director for Nie Family Funeral Homes in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said that in light of the coronavirus pandemic, he has needed to introduce virtual funeral services, which he hadn't needed to offer before.
          He followed the news as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's social distancing policies progressively forbade gatherings of 100 people, then 50, then 10. Virtual services became a necessity, especially with the uptick of deaths in his community.
          And besides livestreaming ceremonies, handing off cremated remains to families is a different process under social distancing guidelines. He said he and colleagues leave flowers, a lit candle, and a loved one's remains in the funeral home's vestibule.
          "We take universal precautions when handling remains," he said, noting that behind the scenes, "there's no difference in services."
          They keep the building's doors locked, and families call from the parking lot, giving the signal that they are ready to pick up the urn.
          While there's an immediate need to acknowledge a loved one's death through some sort of virtual observance, he said, many families are opting for