Virtual grieving and actual grief

Justin Ward
4 min readMay 14, 2021
(Yuliya Ward)

Content warning: Death, descriptions of a dead body

I didn’t get to attend my brother’s funeral. He was teaching in Kazakhstan when he contracted COVID and died last month at the age of 41. The service took place only a few days after he passed, so there was no time to travel there and with all the restrictions in place, I wasn’t sure I could’ve anyhow. So, I had to watch my brother laid to rest on a Youtube video. It was only 11 minutes long. The video started with his wife Yuliya going to the hospital morgue to identify his body before it was transported to the cemetery. I’m not sure if that’s normal in Kazakhstan or if they did things this way due to the pandemic.

The video, shot from Yuliya’s perspective, showed her walking into a dimly lit room. The casket was up against the wall. She walked up to it and tilted the camera downward.

There he was. My one and only brother.

People always say these cliché things at funerals — “he looks peaceful” or “it’s like he’s sleeping” — to comfort themselves. He didn’t look peaceful to me. He looked dead.

A photo of my brother at a hostel in Cappadocia, Turkey. My father and I visited Andy while he was teaching in Istanbul in 2012 (Justin Ward)

They didn’t do the normal stuff mortuary services do to bodies to reinforce that illusion of a sleeping person. There was no make up on him. His skin was pale white tinged with yellow, and there were purple-blue blotches on his cheeks.

Andy may have been at peace but I was unsettled.

Yuliya filmed the trip to the cemetery. It was edited so that everything was in fast-forward. The sky was crystal clear, a tapestry of unbroken blue.

Good funeral weather.

In movies and TV, the skies are gray during funerals, but every funeral I’ve ever attended had weather like this. It feels ironic, the contrast between the bright sunshine and the solemn mood.

The cemetery was unlike any I’d ever seen. In the United States, they all have rich, carefully manicured lawns, broken up by plots and headstones. This was a broad patch of dry dirt, with little black metal fences surrounding each grave.

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Justin Ward

Journalist and activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN, USA Today. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD