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May 11, 2020, 16:02 IST

With no crowds, e-funerals are the new normal

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Be it the Hindu shradh or the Roman Catholic funeral mass, the rituals of saying final goodbyes run deep in every faith. But the Covid-19 pandemic has robbed families of such tradition, no matter the cause of death. Now, only the barest few can be present at the rituals.

Unable to see or touch a loved one in their final hours or even grieve together, families are finding some measure of solace in a tech workaround. The new normal is priests relying on video calls and livestreaming apps — which are helping them handhold families through post-death rites and allowing families and friends to watch and show compassion from the far end of a phone or laptop screen.

Priests live-stream last rites, families log in for final adieu

My wife lost her grandmother in NCR and it was so strange attending a funeral via Zoom!” said actor Sanjay Suri when he took to Twitter to share his unusual tryst with the sacred ritual.

The new normal is priests increasingly relying on video calls and live-streaming apps — which are helping them handhold families through post-death rites and allowing families and friends to watch and show compassion from the far end of a phone or laptop screen.

A day after this family in Tilaknagar cremated their matriarch during the lockdown, two of her sons hooked up a laptop before they could lay out the puja paraphernalia in front of a priest instructing them to mimic a gesture or repeat a mantra while administering the entire shradh on the laptop screen.


The third son watched the proceedings over 1,700 km away in Patna.

“Unlike ceremonies like ‘griha pravesh’ or ‘naamkaran’, ‘shradh’ cannot wait nor do people know the complex rituals. That’s why the urgency to adapt to technology. It takes an hour longer than usual because they need to be guided through the entire process, but I like the fact that it allows multiple families to collectively log in and be there,” explains Pandit Aniruddh, a Thane-based Arya Samaj priest who has conducted four such e-shradhs for families in Mumbai and Pune since the lockdown.

With a funeral gathering reduced to 20 persons for Hindus and no more than five mourners among Catholics, Father Reuben Tellis, parish priest of Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church in Bandra, recounted what it was like to hold a phone in one hand and the prayer book in the other as he stood by the graveside and officiated a virtual burial service for families to watch over a video conferencing app.

A few days ago Fr Tellis honoured a call from the family of an elderly man as he lay dying in his Versova home requesting anointing rites. His son used FaceTime to patch in Fr Tellis who put on his vestment and did a virtual anointing. “You do the best you can under the circumstances,” says Fr Tellis. The Vatican last month waived the requirement for inperson worship and sacraments, including a special dispensation that prayers delivered over a video call would have the same spiritual effect as the physical anointing with holy oil.

Webcasting has been used in funeral services in the past by priests for family and friends unable to board a flight or clock off work. “But the accessibility and solicitude it is providing during the pandemic has made it a necessity,” adds Fr Tellis.

But even as priests acknowledge the hardship of the situation, they are unapologetic about tradition taking a backseat to precaution. “It’s not like we have lost our religiosity. It’s about adopting practical ways to uphold tradition while keeping people safe,” says Fr Warner D’Souza of St Jude Church, Malad East.

The fusion of faith and technology has also lessened the financial pinch for Hindu freelance priests. “My income has been cut by half, but I’m glad I can still perform my duties and receive ‘dakshina’ through online transfer ,” says Rahul Karnatak, a priest from Mumbai, stuck in Delhi since the lockdown.

Mohua.Das@timesgroup.com
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