‘These Are Grievous Times’: In Memoriam at a Lutheran Church in Upstate New York

One of the first virtual memorial events we attended as a part of this study was a service held at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Woodstock, NY on June 30, 2020. Here are some excerpts from the event, elements that caught our attention as we were just beginning to think about how memorial ritual is translated into the virtual.

Creating Community — ‘How Much of Grief is Communal

Pastor Sonja Maclary begins by recalling her own mother’s funeral two years prior to the day. Family, friends, and congregants gathered at the Lutheran church to grieve together as a community. She speaks her words slowly and with care, standing slightly off of center in the mobile-captured frame to allow for the altar, candles, and flowers to remain visible in the background. “Gathering around the bedside of a loved one, holding or attending a wake, gathering for a funeral, even eating or talking together at a funeral luncheon or dinner is part of the communal expression of grief that carries us through these difficult times. All of those processes have been curtailed by COVID-19.”

A screenshot from the virtual service showing a wooden altar with two pieces green, cross-emblazoned fabric draped over it, and a large candle placed in front.
Screenshot from the virtual service

Since the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health professionals, public health officials, and death care workers have issued warnings about the dangers of prolonged or complicated grief. The burdens of grief compound and extend: the loss of loved ones, the loss of those meaningful gatherings and rituals to honor them, and the loss of communal experiences more broadly. However, Pastor Sonja articulates the experience to those in attendance in a different idiom: What does it mean to live during grievous times? 

Since the onset of the pandemic, the church has sought to maintain connectivity between congregants through live-streamed Sunday services, prayer groups, and coffee hours. Despite these virtual gatherings, there still seemed to be something lacking–the possibility to share grief.

Grief all boils down to separation, to being apart in a very final way from someone who was loved. Grief is the pain of separation…it’s very human… One of the most important human things we do is honor our dead and grieve. 

Pastor sonja maclary

The Reading of Names

The centerpiece of the service is the reading of names—names of loved ones that participants have submitted beforehand. Among the names Pastor Sonja reads is that of George Floyd, the list entwining the pandemic losses with this other emblematic death.

“Racial injustice so grievously present in the United States and elsewhere. The Christian faith teachers that we are one body together. When one part of the body hurts, it all hurts. When one part grieves, it all grieves”

Pastor Sonja invites all those in attendance who have not already submitted names to type them into the chat of the Facebook stream. As she nears the end of her commemoration, a name appears in the chat alongside a prayer emoji. Moments later, another commenter adds: “in memorial to everyone. you are not alone.” This brief interaction recalls an image that Pastor Sonja evoked earlier in the service, the notion that an act of love might travel “through the internet.” 

Through this act of commemoration, the names of the deceased are offered up in the presence of a now-virtual community of mourners. Whether through Pastor Sonja’s slow, deliberate recitation or typed into the chat, flanked by hearts and folded hands, each name is inscribed, not just momentarily within this streamed event, but rather in a digital archive and material commemoration that would extend into the future.

The Afterlives of Facebook Comments

During her opening remarks, the pastor invites all those viewing the Facebook live stream to contribute to the chat—comments, she notes, that will be “public and permanent”—with names and memories of those lost since the beginning of the pandemic. As the memorial services goes on, attendees inscribe the names of the deceased in the chat alongside messages in Spanish and English with memories and notes of thanks for those paying tribute to their loved ones. 

A screenshot of a memorial message in Spanish from Facebook.

I am the sister of  R., who passed away on March 30, he was an exemplary human being, an excellent father, son, husband, brother, both caring and honest. He was the youngest of the siblings. I’ll share something very special that came to my mind at this moment. Our mother passed away in 1995. He was such a special son that he helped us dress our mother for the funeral. That’s how it was with R., always caring. Peace upon his soul.

A screenshot of a memorial message in Spanish from Facebook.

Comments from Christ’s Lutheran Church Memorial Service.

The names and memories shared during the service extend outward both in time and in space. They will become part of the “public and permanent” recording of the service and remain an inseparable part of the archived service. Pastor Sonja notes that she is looking forward to rewatching the video after the live service’s conclusion, as she cannot view the comments in real time. “I’m curious about what each of you will share.” 

Virtual and physical memorials

In addition to being digitally ensconced in the archived service, the names of the deceased become materialized in the form of crosses erected on the church grounds. We learn later in an interview with Pastor Sonja and co-organizer artist Julia Santos Solomon, that the virtual service was an extension of a art installation, In Memoriam, created by Julia. “The dead become part of a statistic, while our broken hearts rage,” she explains in the Facebook post about the service. “In Memoriam explores an alternative way to honor the dead.”

While our notes from the In Memoriam service emphasized how ritual was adapted to the virtual context, less apparent to us was the rich collaboration that gave rise to the event—as Julia explained later, “The sense of grief and loss that brought Sonja and I together to create this project.”

“The material representation allows those who are mourning to have a place to grieve.
We’ve found mementos on the crosses and fake flowers.
As COVID rages on, the crosses are increasing in numbers.”

Julia santos solomon