Part of the online farewell ceremony for Toni Riley's aunt Mary that brought together family from all over the world.

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It’s always hard to say goodbye when a loved one passes away, but even harder with Covid-19 restrictions in place. How do we celebrate the life of a loved one and begin the grieving process when only 10 people can gather at a time?

My family faced that struggle with the passing of my mother’s only sister, my Aunt Mary, at age 91. Despite the restrictions, we were able to bring together 39 family members spanning four generations from across the United States and even Germany. We gathered to celebrate her life in an extraordinary way, complete with bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.” In our case, the Covid-19 restrictions pushed us to celebrate Aunt Mary’s life in a new way, one that allowed loved more people, not fewer, to participate thanks to technology.

My mother, who died in 2011, came from a family of five — two girls and three boys. All were raised on a dairy farm in Butler, Pendleton County, Kentucky, next door to grandparents who immigrated from Scotland in the 1870s. With strict Scottish frugality, strong rural work ethic, and determined Methodist faith, these five siblings grew up, found professions, married, had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. While not all remained in rural communities, the family roots always came back to that rural upbringing.  As one cousin put it, “It’s just who we are.”

When I received the word of my aunt’s passing, I immediately wondered, “What will we do?” when thinking about a memorial service.  I knew some families had small funerals, and some live-streamed streamed them or had only graveside while planning more formal memorials when restrictions lift. But when would that be? 

A hollow feeling came over me. I imagined we would have to wait months to gather and celebrate her life. She was called Mama Boots by her Girl Scouts, hiked the Appalachian Trail, and then wrote a book about her experiences, an avid quilter, always said a prayer before her meals, and organized church services, and puzzle parties at her assisted living home.

Ultimately, we broke with tradition because of Covid-19 and gathered virtually via a ZOOM meeting to have a memorial service. It turned out to be as meaningful and reverent as any held at a church or funeral home.

The oldest cousin Lois organized a virtual Campbell reunion in late April; she swears she didn’t have a premonition and just wanted to use her newly developed ZOOM abilities. Over the years, we have had family reunions, but those had dwindled as the second cousins grew up and had families of their own. We hadn’t been together for several years, and Lois felt it was time we caught up. 

Organizing a memorial on ZOOM is no easy task; a person can’t Google a list of “how to’s.” By enlisting the aid of family members and using  her organizational skills, Lois developed a service that will be long remembered.

Lois said her first requirement and the most tedious was timing. The actual service was to last one hour, with a gathering time before the service, and a time for sharing remembrances afterward. She and her sister Mary perfectly choreographed a video and media production complete with audio, video, photos, and people.

Lois noted in her invitation to the service that we were in uncharted territory. She included protocols for appearance and the attendee’s ZOOM rectangle background, noting that both should befit the mood of the occasion.  She gently reminded us to eliminate any distracting background noises, and ZOOM chatting would be considered “whispering in church.”

The ceremony began at precisely 12:50 with a prelude. The full service included singing to instrumental versions of Aunt Mary’s favorite hymns, spiritual music from country to classical,prayers, scripture readings from grandchildren, tributes by her three children and a YouTube photo montage of her life from early years on the farm, Appalachian Trail hikes with Girl Scouts and grandchildren to her assisted living home.

A reflection by cousin Mary personified my aunt’s determination as well as attention to detail. Both Marys were quilters, ardent, devoted, put-your-head-down, and get-it-done quilters. Each summer cousin Mary came in from Connecticut for “quilt camp” with Aunt Mary and the reflection photos documented the results and successes of those many weekends.

As Lois related about organizing the service, she noted, “Nothing was normal when we most needed the comfort of the normal tried-and-true rituals. The online experience was no one’s first choice, but we attempted to honor Aunt Mary.” And honor we did. Despite our distance, we touched each other emotionally and celebrated a life well-lived.

Toni Wilson Riley is a retired Christian County, Kentucky, Cooperative Extension 4-H Youth Development Agent and lives in Hopkinsville on a small goat farm.