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In a virtual funeral, joy comes in the mourning

In late July my father called to say my grandmother had tested positive for the coronavirus. Two weeks later, he called again.

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Ruth Alice Parrott’s was held virtually on a webcam service because of the coronavirus pandemic. This is the view from my kitchen counter as the service started. (Jeff Parrott, Deseret News)

Jeff Parrott, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — My grandmother’s funeral was in my kitchen. 

And in the living rooms of many of my cousins.

My father said goodbye to his mother from the den of the rural Ohio house I grew up in.

Instead of crowding into Presbyterian pews, donned in Sunday’s best, my grandmother’s family prayed and sang, laughed and cried from webcams as far away as New York, Washington state and Florida. I sat alone in my Utah apartment. The sterility of computer screens brought us together, but only so close. Before giving the invocation, an ordained cousin reminded us to mute our microphones.

Ruth Alice Parrott, my grandma, spent nearly 96 years on earth. She was the mother to seven children, a Sunday school teacher, an expert euchre player and a lover of hymns (and left a three-page list of hymnary she wanted played at her funeral). Her kids, my two aunts, four uncles and my dad, provided 18 grandkids for her to fawn over and spoil with endless grace and family-famous “caramel cuts” (picture the best brown sugar brownie you’ve ever had, and then imagine your grandmother made it). 

She lived through almost a century of our young nation’s history. In 1944, she boarded an Arkansas-bound train in Ohio to marry my grandfather, a young Army Air Corps flight instructor. Forty-three years later, she helped his ashes take flight on the family farm in Ohio, knowing as sure as the ground she stood on that they’d be together again one day. 

In late July, my father called to say grandma had tested positive for the coronavirus. Her sharp, educator’s mind — which could sprint through a crossword and always seemed to know what trump cards you held to your chest — had already been lost to Alzheimer’s. There was real concern that the pandemic would run its deadly course through her frail body.

My brother and I spoke on the phone that evening, both a bit shaken by the heartbreak that had cracked our father’s eternal optimism. 

Two weeks later to the day, my father called again. 

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The extended Parrott family, the relatives of my late Grandmother Ruth Parrott, log-in to her virtual funeral service on Aug. 23, 2020.

Jeff Parrott, Deseret News

I was formally invited to my grandmother’s funeral — or perhaps more accurately, her memorial service because there would be no burial — by email. My parents, my brother and sister-in-law and I had spoken several times about if I should fly back to Ohio to be with family. 

My father’s generation had already agreed to use Zoom for the service, so there was no real need to travel, but I wanted to be there in person for my Dad. Webcams are for work and catching up with friends in different states, not funerals, I thought. In Zoom, it’s impossible to hug your father as his heart breaks. The crack in his voice from that first foreshadowing phone call haunted me. I wanted to be at home.

I wanted to go fishing with Dad, to get his mind off the loss. I wanted to helm the outboard, while Dad, from the bow of his old jon boat, pointed to where the fish would be. I wanted to eat dinner with my Mom in the house I grew up in. I wanted to find that caramel cut recipe and bake a batch as religiously and desperately as the sourdough bakers of the early coronavirus doldrums. 

But it wasn’t worth the risk. Less concerned for my own health, my family worried that I could pick up the coronavirus on the flight or drive back to Ohio, thus infecting my 60-something-year-old parents. Dad said he loved me and we could go fishing after the pandemic had passed. A home-cooked meal would always be on the table for their wayward son. 

“Close the blinds behind you,” the family instructed to one of my grandmother’s sisters, who, backlit by a sunny day in Michigan, appeared to be sitting in the dark.

“Who’s actually wearing pants?” someone else asked, eliciting a collective laugh from the group who never pass on the opportunity to make a joke, regardless of the circumstances.

On my computer I saw the extended family I hadn’t seen in months, some in years. My aunts cried while giving eulogies, a surprise to no one, as my uncles watched stoically — equally unsurprising.

One of my cousins owned a Bible that had once belong to grandma. On the inside cover, grandma had written in exclamation “Psalm 30!” Interpreting the note as a sign, the cousin and his family read from King David’s words.

Oh Lord, my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. Oh Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the pit. Sing praises to the Lord, oh you faithful ones. And give thanks to his Holy name. For his anger is but for a moment, favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning .

When the pandemic passes, the family will schedule a time to cast my grandmother’s ashes to the wind at the old farm, so she can take flight with my grandfather. 

Until then, the webcams and phone calls will have to suffice as the a virtual and practical means of spending time together, through the good and the bad. 

We never made it through the three pages of hymns my grandmother left behind, but I think she would have been more pleased by the stories, laughter and tears the family shared on that Sunday. I couldn’t help but smile to see their out-of-focus, under-lit faces.

King David wrote that with dawn comes light. But, joy really comes in the mourning.