Here's how you can hold an amazing memorial service during the COVID-19 lockdown

  • 23/04/2020
father daughter on computer zoom funeral
Just because you're separated physically, doesn't mean you can't celebrate life together. Photo credit: Getty.

By Ianeta Hutchinson for Medium

My grandmother in New Zealand passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic while the whole country was under level 4 lockdown. Under normal circumstances, as a tech-savvy grandkid, I would likely have contributed to the memorial service by putting together the photo presentation or making the music playlist. However, during this time of physical distancing, I found myself best suited amongst my family to navigate the new technical roles critical to gathering virtually. 

My Nan's service spanned six time zones with speakers and singers presenting from across four countries and three generations. The memorial service for Nan was everything we could have hoped for and more. 

I'm writing this tutorial in hope for families who have lost someone or will lose someone during the COVID-19 pandemic. I'm writing this to guide grandchildren or family members who, like I was, are positioned to gift some comfort to mourners as they process their loss. In this uncharted territory, you have an opportunity to bring your family and the friends of your loved one together for a beautiful and gratifying farewell service. 

People will leave with full hearts, feeling emotionally connected, and grateful for the time shared together.

How to do it:

In my situation, between Nan's sons and daughters and my Grandpa, all of the organising necessary for a physical service was in very capable hands. The only spanner in the works was going virtual due to COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns and restrictions on travel for the service.

An Aunt had already started a Facebook group page where the majority of invitees were contactable and had begun sharing stories and memories before my sweet Nan passed away. Once she did pass, my Uncle was quickly established as the point person for the service itself and it was understood that we would be going fully-online. While no one had used Zoom before, it was also already decided that this would be our conferencing software.

It was at this point I offered my help as tech support. And this is where the guide kicks off.

Day 0

Identify the individuals making decisions on the funeral and offer help

You may need to plug in with education on what the service can look like in these strange times. Explain Zoom, what's possible, etc. to the decision group. Once you're on the same page there, run through the rest of the roles (below under Additional Info) to understand if they have been assigned yet. You're going to want to have agreed on a single person in this group who can "sign-off" on pages you've made or decisions about the service.

Download and purchase zoom

Purchase the pro-version of zoom. It allows for longer calls and gives you a persistent meeting ID enabling just one set of instructions for every call or practice you facilitate. I also recommend purchasing the extension that allows phone calls into your meeting and the large meeting extension if you expect close to or above 100 participants.

Delegate presentation and music

I said in the beginning that my role would have been the presentation or music if we weren't in COVID-19 lockdown. Unless you absolutely must, I strongly suggest you are not the person responsible for putting the presentation or music together. You will engage with the person/persons with these roles when it comes time for you to practice playing the music and presentation. Try not to overload yourself. The due-date you should give these folks (if possible) is at least 30minutes before the practice run. This will allow you to have the music playing for people at the practice and help them get more comfortable with the idea of how this service is going to go. (This is our playlist and a presentation template to help).

Day 1

Create and roll out the zoom help website (hopefully with an invitation homepage)

The goal is to end up with a one-stop-shop for all the information loved ones need to attend the service. I made a website using G Suite: Sites which is super easy to edit and publish. I've made a generic version of the site I created for Nan that you can use. A good thing to know about Sites is that you can hide pages from navigation. Do this for the pages that aren't signed off by your decision rep or are a WIP. When something does get signed off, you can add it to the site's navigation.

If you bought Zoom pro, you'll now have a personal meeting ID, your PMI. You can change the password to something easy like 123456. Since your PMI won't change, you can write instructions for getting into your memorial service and roll out the help portion of your website. It's important to do this ASAP because people will need time to get their heads around using Zoom.

Here's a semi-generic version of our zoom help page. It's possible all of your invitees are tech-savvy enough to get into the call without this page. Just be aware that making this assumption and not including this level of help may result in folks missing out on attending.

Homepage: I recommend the homepage be a nice invitation message so that anyone you are inviting gets a welcoming entry-point to other info. Ideally, you will have the time and date of the service that is included in the nice invitation note from the group - here's ours to edit. I added buttons on this page to make it very clear where things were and I told my family to send anyone who wanted to attend a link to this homepage.

Draft program for sign off

Programme for Zoom funeral
The program for Hutchinson's Nan's service. Photo credit: Supplied.

The program is something you will want tight collaboration with your decision rep on. While you will have to wait for approval to roll out the program, you can get started as soon as you have the order of service/schedule for the memorial service. Again, remove the page from navigation and don't have any links on the homepage until you are ready to share. I recommend having not only a web version of the program, but also having a brochure-style version that folks can print off and hold on to like they would in physical services.

Day 2

Sign off on the program and roll this out

If you didn't have the details for the program yesterday, hopefully you do now and can go back and forth on feedback until you get and get your draft of the order of service and program for print signed off and shared. The reason for getting this out asap is so that people can print off the brochure version of the program and be holding onto it when the memorial service commences.

Find and play with zoom preferences

  • Reduce your screen resolution - This will make the call smoother and easier in regard to your bandwidth.
  • Play with how you want your screen setup — I had two laptops and no additional monitors. I had one laptop in the call showing me what participants saw, and used the other to host. My hosting laptop had slides in presentation mode in hidden windows. That way when I hit the share screen option on Zoom, I could pick the window I wanted to share and just navigate over to that window using keyboard shortcuts without a mouse or non-presenting screen showing up to participants.
  • Share audio only — you'll have to download something for this so do that in advance
  • Share screen with computer audio — music will be fuzzy unless you check the computer audio option.
  • Enable waiting room — you'll want to know where this is as you'll want only your speakers in sound check and then you'll want to open the floodgates.
  • Mute all participants (and disable self-unmute) — To give your presenters the floor, you'll need to control the mics.
  • Mute/unmute and spotlight/unspotlight participant — this is how you will move from one speaker to the next. Always unmute before you spotlight as people seeing themselves will be their cue for talking.
  • Share screen — get comfortable with this as there are slides you'll want to be able to show on short notice if a mic isn't working. Think: "Oops, we can't hear the speaker", or "the service will resume shortly".
  • Space bar to temporarily unmute — you will use this if you want to quickly interject. Oldies will feel most comfortable with a verbal cue "yes we can hear you" and holding the space bar will let you give this without finding unmute icons.
  • Rename participant — you will want to re-name speakers in the tool to include a number at the beginning of their name so that you will be able to find them.
  • Start recording automatically — make sure you have room locally to store the recording.

Day 3:

Get the little things signed off

Confirm that there will be no call for an open floor, that you will mute everyone and in the beginning of the service you will be in gallery view. How you will end the service. What support is going to look like during the service. Get the presentation and music from the people in charge of those items — practice playing them.

Talk to your MC

You will need a person in the service that you always bounce back to (see roles under Additional Info). Ensure they are prepared to have comments after each item and an intro for the next item. I recommend they sit farther back/aren't only a head on the screen and set up a memorial table visible to attendees. It will help the viewers if they can see the MC's whole body. They may want to mic up.

Run the practice

The instructions for these folks to get into the call are the same instructions on your website for the actual memorial service (because you are using your PMI).

For some people this will be their first Zoom call. Welcome each person and ensure you can hear them and they can hear you. You will need to give technical info and then you can hand off to the organiser to run through the practice. This is also your practice run so don't feel bad if you have to ask folks to slow down.

The technical info presenters need:

"During the service, please wait to see your own face before speaking. Your video is your message from me that your mic is ON. (If something's awry, I'll cut to a slide and tell you that we cannot hear you)."

After the practice, send this message:

Hello, family! Thank you for being awesome in the practice run!

I have three requests/reminders that will help make sure we get through everything on the zoom side smoothly. I am going to be searching for you in a pool of attendees at your time to talk. What will make it easier for me:

  1. Please join our meeting 45 minutes before service time for Presenter Sound Check.
  2.  During the service, please wait to see your own face before speaking. Your video is your message from me that your mic is ON. (If something's awry, I'll cut to me and tell you that we cannot hear you)
  3. Please have a second phone or device handy and have the toll free phone number, meeting ID, and password written down on a piece of paper BEFORE sound check. 
  4. If you get really stuck, before the service is due to start, message me on 'XXX'. After the service has started, call your country's toll-free number so that you're listening in and message me so I know to cut to you on your phone when it's your turn.

Day 4: Day of Memorial

Presenter Sound Check: 45 mins before service

  • Have the waiting room option enabled. You will see your presenters roll in, admit them, don't admit others yet.

  • Have everyone muted on arrival but enable self unmute.

  • Have presenters sit down where they will be presenting from and project their voice as they will during the service.

  • Rename each speaker with the number of their item so you can find them to unmute and spotlight at their turn. What having a number at the front of their name does is bring them to the top of your participant list. They'll also be higher in the list because they joined first.


  • Mute all, disable 'self-unmute'.

  • Share audio only and play the music playlist.

  • Disable any spotlight you have on and go to gallery view

  • Disable the waiting room. Scroll through the screens of participants, the video recording will be seeing what your screen sees when no one is spotlighted/during gallery view.

Give tech announcement

Before you turn off the music, share your screen with the "service will start soon" slides. You will then give the tech announcement while showing that slide. I have what I said in the announcement here.

Work your magic behind the scenes

  • Unmute before spotlight, mute and undo-spotlight; repeat.

  • Exit screens you no longer need as you go.

  • Have a final farewell slide on your presentation that you can use both before cutting to MC for second farewell, and after going to gallery view at the end of the session. This will help you make hanging up not feel so abrupt.

Calm down. Get comfortable. Enjoy the Service.

Now that the service is over, it's time for you to take the time so see all you missed. This was your loved one. Turn off your notifications, settle in, and watch the recording.

Day 5: The day after

Edit video and roll out via website

I used iMovie to edit. I tried to keep the authenticity of the original call only making the procession more rapid (I removed it's audio and added a song we listened to) and I also trimmed the time between speakers.

By adding a page to your website with the video embedded, you can ensure a better experience for folks viewing the service for the first or second time. By embedding, link recipients will be able to view the recording without YouTube's suggestions for other videos alongside and you'll have enabled them to view then print the program as a keepsake, also.

Day 6: REST

Please rest. You deserve it. Then, please pay it forward. Let me know what you dicosvered to include here so that the next person's is set up even better.

If you're reading this far, I assume you are where I found myself last week. I am so sorry for your loss. Please direct message me if you need help. 

Additional Info

Roles in COVID-19 funerals and how you'll interact with them:


  • Hat 1: Zoom host/tech support — hosts/runs the zoom call and practice runs, collects presentation and music from assigned people, educates anyone who asks on what's possible and what's not on zoom. Available for tech support for zoom before the meeting. Decemberdes support strategy for during meetings.
  • Hat 2: Owner/Creator of the website — Coordinates with the decision rep (description below) for creating a site for invitations, zoom how-to page, order of service with online and printable version. Posts to social media pages or gives instructions to decision group for communications that will lead people back to the website with information on the service and getting into zoom. After the service, edits and posts video post-memorial.

In the meeting help desker:

  • This person is preferably not a close family member or close friend of the deceased — just ask a friend of yours. Since you'll be busy hosting this person will be tech support during the service. You'll share their phone number during your technical announcement at the start of the service. 
  • They'll get called during the service and do quick troubleshooting (is volume up? is audio connected? Is the right camera selected?). Then, they'll give the toll-free numbers and have the person write down how to get in. The help desker's goal is to get people who drop off the call connected via audio asap and reassure folks that dropped off the call that the memorial is being recorded.

More typical roles (that will have to adapt to be online):

Decision group:

Decision makers for the order of service (Who's MC, who is speaking, what they are saying/singing and how much time they have to do it); music upon entry; changes to the program look and feel. They will tell you who the people are that you will need to call/reach out to individually to support getting into the memorial call. Understand they have a lot on their plate that you won't see: organising burial/cremation details, condolence/notification calls, their own grief, etc.. It is going to be more difficult for this group to talk altogether so it is important that you ask for and they establish a single person that you can talk to who will go off and get consensus with the larger group.

Decision group rep:

Part of the decision group and is the appointed communicator for that group to you and other roles. When they sign off on something, you can assume that they represent the whole decision group. They're your point person for on the fly decisions or smaller stuff you are worried about. In my family, this person was also the MC.


May not be necessary for a physical service but is 100 percent necessary in online services. Beyond the welcome, this is who you bounce back to between each item during the service to introduce the next item. In my family, this person was also the decision group rep.

Photo presentation maker:

Needs to establish the most familiar/easiest way of internet-based communication for loved ones to send them photos and call for photos from everyone — If there's a group on Facebook, calls for photos there. If folks are on WhatsApp, they ask there. Length of the presentation will depend on how many photos they get. Goes to the decision rep for song(s) and for sign off on the final presentation. You should tell this person to expect to auto-next at 10sec each slide and you will need to give them a timeline that you're comfortable with — good would be before the practice call. We used Google slides for this and it made collaborating very straight forward.


Coordinates with decision group/rep for direction on where they fit into the program. Gets directions/answers about zoomifying their presentations if necessary from you. They will be your highest priority for tech support.

Music playlist maker:

Gets a list from the decision group/rep. Coordinates with you to decide on youtube/spotify/itunes and makes a playlist for folks on the call to enter and exit to. We went with YouTube for the playlist as Spotify didn't have Nan's old favourites. Whichever you choose, I recommend you upgrade to an account without ads.

Technology I used for the one-stop-shop website and memorial service:

I had already used Google's G Suite but Zoom and iMovie were completely new to me.

Some messages from our attendees:

  • "It was so touching and so beautiful I am still crying. I could feel your love for one another, your faith, and her strength and unconditional love for you all."
  • " be able to share that with everyone — well you have no idea how special it was for them and the rest of us Thank you"
  • "What a beautiful service.The tributes and the love shared was heartwarming."
  • "Thank you everyone, lovely service for a lovely lady…"
  • "Thanks whanau was such a beautiful service. You all did so well."
  • "…that was beautiful thank you  percentchurr"
  • "Thank you to those of you who worked hard to prepare a service worthy of celebrating the wonderful woman, we've come together for to remember.."
  • "Thank you so much for including us in your special family celebration of life — we feel truly privileged.."