When Sergio Rotta’s mother died, the grief was not only felt in his family home in Brisbane — it was also felt half a world away in Annamaria’s hometown of Milan.
Her funeral was small, with only seven or eight attendees, but half a dozen more of her family and friends were able to share the experience in real time on the other side of the globe.
“She was always up for adventure, that’s pretty much the reason we came to Australia,” Mr Rotta said, adding that the move had ‘left a lot of people behind.’
When they moved when he was 13, Mr Rotta said, “we left a lot of people behind.”
“My wife Emily decided to find a place that streamed live so that we could have our relatives involved as well,” Mr Rotta said.
“We wanted to have everybody be part of it, especially her brother in Italy — he can’t fly, he’s got a phobia of flying … so we made sure he was part of it.”
Annamaria’s relatives gathered in Milan to watch the livestream together.
“They wanted to be part of our grief,” Mr Rotta said.
“And it was making sure there was closure for them as well … It was very good for them.”
Industry moves with the times
Alex Medcalf is no stranger to working with grief — his previous career as a British army soldier involved breaking the news to families that their loved one was a casualty in battle.
After spending several years helping his wife’s uncle run a funeral home in Burpengary, north of Brisbane, he moved into ‘funeral IT’, starting a streaming service that has doubled in demand every month in its four-month existence.
“The IT side has become a lot more important to families,” Mr Medcalf said.
“Tribute centres, web streaming, apps where they can upload information and photos so they don’t have to travel to the funeral home.”
With clients across the country and in New Zealand, his goal is to stream 30,000 funerals a year — a figure he says is achievable when, by his estimate, more than 160,000 funerals are held across Australia every year.
But Mr Medcalf is not the first to offer the service.
Newhaven Funerals director Tim Connolly first tried live streaming with his own grandparents’ funerals in New Zealand ten years ago.
It overcame the distance, time and expense of an overseas trip.
“I thought it was going to be one of those fads,” Mr Connolly said.
“But we offer it to all our clients who use the crematorium here and probably 50 per cent of them take it up.”
‘Closure’ for far-flung loved ones
University of Queensland associate professor of psychology Judith Murray says there are obvious benefits to this modern approach.
If someone can’t make it to a funeral, she said watching it live can help reinforce what has happened and help them to move on.
“But I do think it’s like anything with technology,” Professor Murray said.
“We can end up with unintended consequences … [that] we need to be careful about.
“We’ve seen that there can be incredible loneliness in people who have a lot of Facebook friends, but don’t have any real friends.
“I think it can be a bit the same with grieving.
“If you have someone who’s isolated or estranged from their families, sitting in a room watching a live stream funeral without people around them [can complicate their grief].”
The future of funerals
Funeral director Tim Connolly, who remembers handling recordings of funeral services on VHS, said the funeral industry is constantly looking to the future.
While he welcomes the convenience and the impact of the rise of live streaming, he also wonders where it will leave physical ceremonies in years to come.
“It might [get to a point] to where people don’t actually attend the chapel and don’t offer their condolences to the family, and that’s really what a funeral is about.
“In time, who knows what technology will allow?”
Prof Judith Murray says the power of touching, hugging and looking someone in the eye should not be underestimated in times of loss.
“We know there’s even a part of the brain that lights up in grief which also lights up in romantic attachment where there’s a strong sense of wanting to move physically towards that person.
“I don’t necessarily think [streaming] will ever replace the power of the physical communication that happens at funerals.”
Former president of the Australian Funeral Directors Association Darren Eddy says ‘hundreds’ of funerals around Australia each day are now live streamed, but he does not believe there is any substitute for the real experience.
“I can’t ever see technology overtaking a hug,” Mr Eddy said.
“And I hate to think that that would happen.
“The funeral is really about those that are left behind … it’s an opportunity to get together, support each other, share in the grief.”
“You can’t do that over a computer screen.”
But for the Rotta family, the internet provided a meaningful bridge across time and space.
Knowing her family and friends had the chance to say goodbye, Mr Rotta said, “I think my mum would have appreciated it very much”.