I just participated in my first virtual funeral. I’ve been to my share of funerals, of all shapes and sizes, but this was a unique experience.
My grandmother, Rhoda Brand, died on April 8. She was about to turn 95 years old.
She had been battling dementia. It is difficult to know exactly when it really took hold, but I’d say I have being able to observe signs of its presence for the last eight to 10 years.
As a family, we were posed with the challenge of figuring out how to mourn when you can’t be physically around people. Things like Zoom are great for connecting virtually, but it turns out it isn’t a good substitute for actual human contact. Because my grandmother died the morning before the first Passover Seder, the following two days are considered holy which means, no funeral. The day after was a Saturday Shabbat so … no funeral. That means the funeral was four days later, four days where you can’t gather with your siblings, friends, or family for comfort. You mourn, for all intents and purposes, alone.
The afternoon after she died, my first cousins gathered for a Zoom. My family is filled with people who get along, so you’d think this would be easy. It was not. Staring at a laptop screen version of “The Brady Bunch” theme song filled with family trying to figure out who should talk next and what to talk about, is pretty awkward. It would have been much better to be in the same living room, gathered around a couch sharing those same stories about Grandma.
Because of COVID-19, we and so many other families who have gone through some kind of loss, had to adjust.
More than 10 people can’t gather together, so the funeral at the Peabody cemetery was graveside. The rabbi, the funeral director, my father, his three siblings, and their respective four spouses made up the 10.
The funeral director provided a Zoom link for the rest of us. We were in one of four cars parked facing toward the service, flanked by my sister’s family on one side and cousins on the other.
I sat there with my wife in the passenger seat and our two daughters in the back, watching the service from 100 feet away at the same time that we watched a close-up and listening to the rabbi via Zoom on my phone. As it went on, I saw names of extended family and friends “joining the meeting.”
We watched from a distance as my parents, aunts, and uncles stood a safe distance apart from each other, all wearing gloves and masks, with the rabbi’s back to us in real life and his face to us in Zoom.
It was so close and so far away.
You know that moment when the rabbi throws the first bit of earth? The sound of dirt and rocks hitting the casket is always the moment when the whole thing feels most real. This time, I could hear it faintly, from a distance, through the open windows and then after the briefest of delays, more amplified through the Zoom meeting.
Before the service started, I asked the funeral director if it would be possible if after the 10 got back in their cars, if those of us who wanted could go and shovel some dirt and/or place a rock. My aunts and uncles, along with my parents, waited at their cars as my cousins, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my wife made our way, giving each other plenty of distance between, over to the gravesite and paid our respects.
The cemetery groundskeepers took over to finish filling the earth into the grave. We all sat in our cars watching. Nobody wanted to leave. When they finished, they left, along with the funeral director and the rabbi. Still, we waited.
My parents, and then my aunts and uncles, made another visit to pay their respects one more time. When Julianna, my older daughter, saw this happening, she asked if she could go and put a rock at the gravesite and another at my grandfather’s.
We rolled down the window of the car and asked my sister if anyone in her car also wanted to go.
Before we knew it, we were standing outside our car, along with all the cousins and all the kids, all in masks and gloves. We waited for people to get back to their cars and then we started our own second wave of visits. We collected rocks and placed them at my grandmother, grandfather, my great aunt, and then even walked over to my maternal grandfather’s grave, who my kids never got a chance to meet. I think my kids may have even put some rocks on tombstones for people who aren’t part of our family.
For the briefest of moments, we were all there, safely apart but all together.
It was much different than when her husband, my grandfather, died just over four years ago. When I write, I generally try to put things in the context of how it might affect my daughters’ (Julianna, 12 and Chloe, 11) world. They certainly knew and spent some time with my grandmother over the years, but I’m not sure they ever knew her because of the dementia and certainly not in the way I did.
The night before she died, my family decided to have a BBQ. Both Julianna and Chloe wanted to help me cook. That day was also my father’s birthday. We had plans, thanks to COVID-19, to do a family Zoom with him after dinner to celebrate. But a few days prior, there were signs that things were not looking good for my grandmother.
My dad decided to go back to the senior living facility to spend time with her. The virtual birthday celebration was not going to happen. When we told the girls, they asked why, and we explained that Great Grandma Rhoda was not doing well.
“Is she going to die soon? “Chloe asked.
Yes, she probably is, I said matter-of-factly.
They asked why I didn’t seem sad about it. I said I would certainly be sad to not have her in this world but because of the dementia, I believed that when she passed away, it would be like a giant, weighted blanket being lifted off of her and that person who I grew up with and the person who I knew for the first 30-something years of my life would be free.
Now is our chance, as a family, to make everything that made her so special come back.
When I was a kid, my family would go to my grandparents’ house in Malden every Sunday. My grandmother would cook lunch for all of us and I’m not talking about the way I would do it with eight boxes of macaroni and cheese. These were multi-course meals and they were delicious, every single week.
I have never known anyone who could cook as well as she did. She made, easily, the best meatballs I’ve ever eaten. She called them “Swedish meatballs” but I think they were more “Sweet and Sour meatballs.” She guarded this recipe like an NBA lockdown defender.
Eventually, she relented and now each household in the family has a version of her meatballs.
When I was a kid, each year around Hanukkah time, Grandma would give each of her grandkids a copy of the Toys “R” Us circular from the newspaper. We were tasked with circling the items that we wanted. I remember almost passing out from excitement each year when I would see her coming with that circular. It is only now that I think about how amazing it was that she would go and buy multiple copies of a whole newspaper so she could get multiple circulars.
I then imagine her walking around Toys “R” Us, somehow managing to keep it all organized. I picture her with her glasses on holding all that newspaper, flipping pages searching for crayon circles and jumping between the Barbie section and the G.I. Joe section and everything in between.
Grandma was, in many ways, a classic matriarch in her time. She gave so much and cared even more.
She was just so warm.
My grandfather, her husband, was in the lighting business.
She was and always will be the light.
I wish my kids really got to experience and know her the way I did.
She is free.
For that, and for all that she gave us and will continue to give us, I am thankful and always will be.
Matt Brand grew up in Peabody and now lives in Natick with his wife and daughters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.