Far-flung relatives now watch funerals online

Funerals.

At a Jewish service at the Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz funeral home in Cleveland Heights, friends and family share stories about the man they call “Joe.”

“And as you might’ve guessed, a week or two later, you know what happened,” smiles one relative. “One of the kids turned the table on Joe, and put a pie right in his face, and we had that on camera as well.”

I saw scenes of fondness and remembrance -- smiles and tears. But the thing is, I wasn’t really there. Some of the mourners weren’t either. We were watching an online video stream, some from Arizona, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

Cindy Saltzer is Joseph’s daughter. She’s glad the funeral was available online.

“My family... they did not want to have that,” confides Saltzer. “I think they thought it might have been intrusive, but they originally did not want to do it, and I did. I thought it was a good idea.” 

In the Jewish religion, burials are done quickly. In Albert Joseph’s case, it was two days after his death. Normally this means costly, last-minute airfares or long, stressful drives. But in this case, Saltzer arranged a webcast with the funeral home, with an on-demand link for those who could only see it later. 

“And we got wonderful responses, wonderful letters from people who saw it live,” Saltzer says. “Even one of my dad’s elderly friends... figured out how to do it, and watched it live.” 

Funeral director Michael Kumin says he installed the projectors, screens, and computer equipment two months ago, at a cost of $22,000. The funeral home doesn’t charge extra for the service, which gives them a leg-up on competitors.

Kumin says out of the last 80 services, about a third included webcasts... like one where a brother Skype-d in from Florida.

“And bigger than life, we had the brother sitting on that screen... in front of his computer so we saw him,” recalls Kumin. “And he spoke to everyone here. He said the things he wanted to say about his brother that came from his heart, and when it was all over, the rabbi continued, we put the screen back up, and the service continued as if someone had just walked out of the family room to step up on the podium and speak.”

Interest in online funerals is growing. One company, National Webcast, says demand has shot up 250 percent from 2011. But Sara Marsden says some funeral homes are worried.  She’s editor-in-chief for U.S. Funerals Online.

“We will see a lot more funeral homes close down, unfortunately,” says Marsden. “Because I think the more we can access online services, we’re not going to be traveling on the same basis to visit funeral homes.”

In short, less revenues for funeral homes from chapel space, services, and caskets. 

But not everyone thinks the online trend means the end of traditional services. Daniel Berry runs a couple funeral homes in the Cleveland area. 

“I don’t think it’s ever going to replace the value of the human touch, the presence of a friend or family there at the funeral home to comfort and share the grief with the family,” says Berry. “Which is why we have calling hours, why we have funeral services, why we memorialize the individuals.”

Still, for Cindy Saltzer, emailing the link of her father’s service to friends made her happy.

“It was a beautiful service,” she says. “My dad was an outstanding man, and I just wanted to share it with people who would’ve wanted to see it.”

Saltzer’s husband Michael, argues online services will benefit those tight on for cash, too sick or too old to travel, as well as relatives in the military.

“I really don’t see a downside, and since we have the technology, why not take advantage of it, and use it so other people can be a part of it and experience it?” 

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