The COVID-19 pandemic has made the ZOOM meeting a fixture of our lives — and even our deaths. As gatherings became unsafe, funeral businesses have shifted much of what they do online. 

“There is a hunger and an appetite to to grieve and mourn,” said Barry Koch, co-founder of TGBeyond, which helps families navigate late and end-of-life needs. “We're actually biologically wired in a way that grieving is an essential part of the human experience.” 

Since the pandemic hit, the bulk of Barry’s work has been producing online memorials. Grieving on Zoom felt like the only safe choice for the family and friends of Daniel Williams, who died by suicide in Athens on Jan. 12. His sister, Anna Ruth Williams runs arpr, a technology public relations firm in Atlanta, so she is tech-savvy. She, her mother, Terri Davis, and Dan’s widow, Melissa Lee, put together a Zoom memorial five days later.

People needed to come together quickly,” Anna Ruth said. “Because when someone dies unexpectedly, like in this situation with a suicide, the trauma and the shock had everyone craving human connection.”

Especially during a pandemic, when their collective grief was compounded by isolation.

“Of all the things we've been through as a population over the past year, I had never wanted to hug as much as I did in the days after Dan died," she said.

Dan traveled in a lot of circles. He was a bluegrass musician in the Sweet Auburn String Band. He was politically engaged. He loved gatherings, especially tailgates involving Auburn Tigers and Atlanta Falcons football. Dan was also a passionate meat smoker and member of the Lang barbecue community. 

More than 300 households registered for the Zoom meeting, so not everyone would be able to speak. Anna Ruth asked four people from different stages of Daniel’s life to share stories: Daniel’s uncle, Tim Cassell; childhood friend Dustin Crawford; high school buddy Andrew Salinas; and David Yasson added dimension to Daniel’s nearly 39 years on Earth. 

Anna Ruth also knew that there had to be music, so she invited Dan’s bandmates Will Ruff and Ian Hennessee to start things off with a couple of songs, while her cousins, Will and Thomas Cassell closed with more of Dan’s favorites. She also asked Dan’s very close friend, Andrew Tate, to keep things moving, which is helpful for virtual services — though she struggled with the term “emcee.”   

“So obviously none of us want to be here,” Andrew began, his voice cracking. “But I think we all agree the only way we're going to get through this is if we do it together.” Andrew added later that he had brisket on the smoker in Dan’s honor, adding “hope I don’t screw it up.”  

Barry Koch has noticed an informality in the events he’s worked on. People in the comfort of their own homes share in different ways than at traditional funerals. “They are a lot more willing and able to share intimate and meaningful stories as opposed to somebody who has to walk to the front of a church in front of two hundred people in a blue suit or heels, and deliver a meaningful, intimate address to a group of people.”

Here, there was no formal service. No suits or ties, but loads of people wearing Dan’s preferred uniform of flannel shirt or Auburn Tigers and Atlanta Falcons gear. And hundreds of faces on a computer screen reaching across miles and months of isolation to hear about the arc of a life. 

Anna Ruth enjoyed seeing people’s faces instead of the backs of their heads sitting in a church pew or funeral home.

“Just to scroll through and see all that visual love," she said. "And it's compounded because it's people that you haven't seen in a year, you know. ... It also brought levity and humor. And the previous five days, there had been no laughter.” 

Uncle Tim told the story of Daniel moving the three wisemen from the Christmas crèche to the other side of the house when he was a little kid. The precocious Dan explained that it took a year for the three wisemen to reach Bethlehem, so it didn’t make sense for them to be there on Christmas day. 

There were stories of his years as a “khaki-wearing Jesus freak.” There was the Instagram account Dan set up for his beloved dog, Hubbell. And there was the time David Yasson was housesitting for Dan, who was traveling with Melissa in Europe. Yasson was worried when Dan called David in what would have been the middle of the night on the continent. After asking if everything was all right, Dan said, “Everything's great! Just turn the TV on towards the Nest camera, and get out of the way so I can watch the Auburn game.” 

After an hour, everyone switched off their cameras. Dan’s funeral was over. And as strange as this Zoom memorial may have seemed at first, Anna Ruth found it surprisingly consoling. 

“That was the first night that I went to bed without bawling, because I had allowed emotions to flow during that service,” she said. “I think I can say we all did in a way that allowed us to kind of exit the shock and enter the grief.”  

Daniel Williams' family and friends still plan to hold an outdoor memorial — once everyone is vaccinated and the weather warms up. A small group will celebrate what would have been his 39th birthday this weekend. 

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, help is available by calling the National Suicide Provention Hotline at 800-273-8255.