When Marlene Behrmann Cohen’s uncle died in Melbourne, Australia, she was distressed that she would not be able travel from Pittsburgh to join her family to mourn at his funeral.
But, as it turns out, thanks to 21st century technology, Behrmann Cohen was able to feel connected to her family and be present at the funeral, albeit by watching from her computer as it streamed live.
“It was great,” she said, noting that her extended family, originally from South Africa, is scattered throughout the world, and yet they were able to come together to mourn through the streaming service.
“I don’t have many opportunities to see my cousins, and I loved my uncle, my father’s younger brother,” said Behrmann Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “It was great to see my cousins and my aunt and to hear the eulogies. I really felt a part of it. I could see where everyone was sitting and that they were all hugging, and they knew I was watching. My sisters, who are in South Africa, Israel and Toronto, all watched too. And we could all talk about it afterward and feel a sense of belonging and presence.”
Streaming funerals has become fairly common in the last several years, according to Stephen Kemp, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and owner of Kemp Funeral and Cremation Services in Southfield, Mich.
“The trend started about five or six years ago,” Kemp said, but had its genesis before streaming technology became ubiquitous. About 10 years ago, he said, many families began videotaping funerals to share with absent loved ones afterward
“Families have become less nuclear,” Kemp explained. “Children may be working out of the country, or living on the West Coast, and they still want to see the funeral. So, it started with taping and then went to live streaming, where people can log on and watch the live funeral. They can share the experience without incurring the cost of traveling and still share in the grieving.”
The only downside of streaming funerals has to do with issues of privacy, according to Kemp.
“You have to tell people who are there that you are live streaming,” he said. “Some people are paranoid about being seen, so you have to make disclosures.”
Whenever we are offered an easier technological ‘diminished substitute,’ pretty soon we begin to prefer the diminished substitute over the real thing. So, don’t be surprised if streaming funerals means fewer and fewer people deciding to travel to funerals.
Ruthann Sheffler-Adelsberg, a Pittsburgh native, has watched a few streaming funerals of people who “impacted her life” but whom she did not know personally. The list includes a rabbi and a rebbetzin who inspired her. She watched the funerals in their entirety.
“This is an incredible time we live in,” she said, adding that watching a funeral live streamed can be just as “cathartic and emotional” as being physically present at the service.
At Pittsburgh’s Ralph Schugar Funeral Chapel, which serves many local Jewish families, most sharing of live funerals is through Skype and Facetime, according to Sharon Ryave Brody, owner and president of Schugar. Those apps are generally intended to reach a single viewer at a time, rather than a streaming service to which any number of people can log in at once.
Only about 20 percent of the families Schugar serves request sharing the funeral live via technology, Brody said, but added that Schugar would work to accommodate a family’s wishes and has the technology and capability to do so.
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Shaare Torah Congregation in Squirrel Hill, has been conducting funerals for years, and said he streams funerals “all the time.”
“I almost always offer to throw it up on livestream,” Wasserman said. “Many times, people take me up on it.”
Having the ability to view a funeral from a computer is a way “for people out of town to feel connected,” he said.
Wasserman knows firsthand the value of an opportunity to participate in a funeral through a livestream. Just last August, he was able to watch his own brother’s funeral, which was taking place in Israel.
“It’s using technology to connect people,” he said.
The only “downside” Wasserman sees to a streaming funeral is the commercials that some providers play during the service, which sometimes come at inopportune moments, like in the middle of a eulogy.
While Rabbi Danny Schiff, the Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, sees the value in using technology to connect people, he also can see a potential hazard.
“Every new technology brings with it both upsides and downsides,” Schiff said in an email. “There can be no doubt that the ability of loved ones and friends to watch a funeral they cannot attend is a plus. And yet watching a funeral as a distant spectator is clearly a ‘diminished substitute’ for being there in person, for hugging the mourners, participating together with a grieving community and fulfilling the mitzvah of accompanying the dead to their place of burial.”
Schiff pointed to the “essential problem” as noted by author Jonathan Safran Foer in The New York Times. “Whenever we are offered an easier technological ‘diminished substitute,’ pretty soon we begin to prefer the diminished substitute over the real thing. So, don’t be surprised if streaming funerals means fewer and fewer people deciding to travel to funerals, an outcome that will be both Jewishly undesirable and plain sad.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at