Like other churches in Renton, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church had to move its services to the digital world in the spring while the real world was shutting down to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
St. Luke’s Rector, The Rev. Kevin Pearson, spoke with other leaders at the church to imagine what obstacles they might face in the new territory. Funerals came up.
“We realized this could be a real need,” Pearson said.
It was shortly after when a friend of Pearson’s called to tell him his brother had died and the family couldn’t gather due to COVID-19 that St. Luke’s went forward with online funeral services. In Renton, they gathered the materials needed to prepare a completely virtual funeral for the family — who are in Ohio.
“It was wonderful to be able to share with the whole family our grief of our brother’s passing. We all loved the pictures and the opportunity to share stories and happier times with us all together. Thank you so much for allowing us this final step,” one testimonial from the service states on St. Luke’s website.
After that first time, the online service became a regular offering at St. Luke’s.
Pearson said he’s seen some funeral homes offer some online services during the pandemic shutdown, but has seen very few churches offer the same. With the St. Luke’s offering, the service is a streamed liturgy, followed by an optional face-to-face Zoom coffee hour.
Despite the disconnect that some may assume comes from a virtual event, Pearson said watching the Zoom coffee hour that first time made him feel it wasn’t virtual at all. In fact, the group video call required attendees to be more present and attentive to the immediate family. Funerals can bring many complicated emotions as well, and he saw a lot of best behavior at the Zoom event.
He knows the idea of a virtual service can be hard for people to wrap their head around. A couple of weeks into offering the online service, St. Luke’s had only had the first funeral. Pearson knows a lot about grief in his role and as a chaplain at Seattle Children’s Hospital. He said there’s a certain amount of time within someone’s passing when a service is very valuable emotionally and psychologically. But many are choosing to wait out a funeral until things return to normal.
But “normal” is not something Pearson feels is on the horizon, especially for people in high risk groups, like people over age 65.
He said having an online service doesn’t stop people from gathering again when it’s safe for an in-person service, but said the online service can be in conjunction.
The standard online funeral also costs around $750, which is cheaper than most in-person offerings. So it can also be an alternative for those struggling to afford a venue event. Pearson said the church is looking at some sort of donation system for people to support costs for families struggling to afford an event for loved ones who have died.
More information on online services is available at stlukesrenton.org/funeral.