How Jewish Funerals Change in the Time of COVID-19

Updated

On March 20, Rabbi David Cooper officiated a Jewish funeral in Oakland, three days after the shelter-in-place guidelines were announced for six San Francisco Bay Area counties.

Since that time, funeral restrictions have tightened.

Earlier this week, I spoke on the phone with Cooper, Active Emeritus Rabbi at Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Jewish spiritual home for politically progressive people. 

Q: Can you tell me what the funeral you officiated was like?

A: We were limited to a graveside funeral. There was no memorial service at the synagogue, which we would ordinarily have. We had about twenty people, who all kept their distance. Only the immediate family members shoveled earth on the coffin. 

Whoever had the shovel would sanitize their hands after they shoveled some dirt. They didn’t pass the shovel to the next person, but left it standing in the ground, and then the next person would take the shovel, fill the grave with more dirt, then sanitize their hands. We decided that this made more sense than sanitizing the shovel in between people, because everyone holds the shovel differently. 

Ordinarily, at a Jewish funeral, there would have been more family and friends filling the grave with earth. Instead, I took the shovel and said, “I will represent the community at large.”

Ordinarily, we would hand out cards with the kaddish (mourning prayers) printed on them. They’re the same size as a deck of cards. Instead, I had the kaddish printed on 8 1/2 by 11 paper and fanned those sheets out on a table with a smooth paperweight on top, so mourners could slide one sheet of paper out without touching the others. 

Q: Did you have any protocol about how to do this? These are new and challenging times.

A: Afterward, I wrote up notes about the precautions we needed to take at funerals, including some things I did as well as some I hadn’t thought of. I put it in a Google Doc and shared it with others who added their own ideas. 

For example, I suggested one thing we could mention was that we Jews, as is true for many of the world’s peoples, have often had to honor our loved ones who have died under difficult circumstances.

Also, I would ask the cemetery for four or more shovels.

But then we got word from the Jewish Funeral Home that they were no longer allowing the presence of family and guests. Only an officiant and the staff from the cemetery could go to the burial site. The only contact family members and others could be via Facetime or Zoom. 

So, what I did back in March, we can no longer do. 

Q: Was that just a specific funeral home?

A: No, now it’s pretty much all of them. They don’t allow family and friends at the gravesite. It’s to protect the workers who are doing the burial.

In any other time, we would have done a ceremony in the sanctuary with a few hundred people. This was a well-known person who died. But we restricted it to family and the closest friends.

Even with rules that were not as strict as we have now, we reduced the attendance to about 10 percent of what it might have been.

Q: So now how are you managing funerals and related activities?

A: One example is how we’re handling sitting shiva, which is a gathering, usually at someone’s house, where people gather to comfort the bereaved, share stories, pray, and eat.

Now people are opening up online shiva pages. Our congregation has a shiva gathering tonight. A member’s mother died on the East Coast. We’re doing a shiva here. There will be a service leader. With a chance for people to share their memories and thoughts. All online. I know there are now some people who have created sites for online funerals.

Kavod v’Nichum, a national Jewish organization of burial societies, has been sharing new guidelines on burial

One of our most important groups in our congregation is the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish men and women who tend to the bodies of the deceased, prepare them for burial, and protect them from desecration.

One part of that is the taharah, where the body is ritually washed, dressed in shrouds, and then laid in the coffin. This takes 45 minutes to an hour and a half. Usually, the people who make up the Chevra Kadisha are wearing gloves and gowns. It happens at the funeral home. There’s a lot of pouring of water and saying of prayers.

Now that’s not allowed. Because it takes several people doing it. Lifting the body and all that. So we’re working out how to do a taharah that is virtual. Usually, we have someone who keeps the dead person company from the time he or she dies until burial. 

It is the custom that this watcher is next to the body, but if the body is in the funeral home, and it’s closed at night, the watcher might be parked in a car outside the gate. In close proximity. This ritual came from a time when you had to make sure wild animals didn’t get to the body.

Now we are setting up a virtual shemira — there’s always someone who is in a place by themselves, staying connected to the person who has passed. Still bearing witness. 

Now the Chevra Kadisha get together on Zoom and they describe what they would be doing, like washing the body or wrapping it in a shroud. They read the liturgy and describe the actions they would be taking under normal circumstances. 

One part of the ritual is an apology to the dead person for any mistakes the Chevrah Kadisha may have made in preparing the body for burial if there was some harm inflicted on the dignity of the deceased person.

Now we add to the apology that we can’t be there in person. 

Here’s an interesting development. I was part of a meeting with my Chevrah Kadisha, and they said, well, we're not going to do a taharah until this whole thing passes and we have gloves and masks that we're not going to use. So how many can we donate to the hospitals? 

They decided to keep two sets in case someone dies soon after the restrictions are lifted. They had the option to do nothing. We’re going to need these eventually. But it wasn’t a question of doing nothing. The question was are we going to hold on to one set of gloves and gowns and mask or two.

Q: How have the restrictions impacted other aspects of dealing with dying and end-of-life care? I don’t know how much sitting by the bedside of someone dying you or other spiritual leaders do, but next to them, you can communicate in one way or another. That may not work as well over the phone or on a video chat. 

A: Certainly we visit people who are dying, who are in hospice. Before the restrictions tightened, I did go to the hospital to be with someone who was dying. I was masked and gowned and gloved. Now I can’t do that.

But a nurse can hold the phone in front of a dying person and you can Facetime with them. 

There are hospices that allow immediate family members to come in. With practicing safe distancing. I have a friend whose partner is in hospice, and they are allowing him to be there. With gown and gloves and mask. He and the attending nurse are the only ones allowed in his room. 

Q: How are you planning for what is to come in the coming month or months? Is there any guidance in the Torah. I mean, there have been plagues before.

A: There was an article in Haaretz about previous responses to plagues in earlier parts of Jewish history that were counterproductive — “How Judaism Handled Epidemics Down the Ages.” There was this belief that if the community got together to pray on the behalf of the sick that that would help. We now know that’s not a good strategy.

(Note: The Haaretz article notes that the Talmud advised that when traveling during an epidemic, one should stick to the sides of the road rather than walking down the middle. That would have created some social distance, assuming the shoulders were not as crowded as the middle — the reasoning for doing so was that the Angel of Death walks down the middle during the time of plague.)

Just today, a group of rabbis in New York put out a letter that stated, sadly, that even rabbis should not be physically present at burials. It read:

“We must recognize that the principle of pikuach nefesh requires us to make exceptions to our time-honored funeral practices in order to protect human life, health, and safety. Clergy and community must find alternative ways to show comfort and condolence in these times.”

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