The physical distancing requirements of the coronavirus pandemic affect more than just our daily lives. It has dramatically changed funerals and memorial services. Should a Jewish family experience a death, funeral homes and cemeteries have implemented a number of precautions that alter Jewish funeral traditions.
Jewish funeral traditions involve the community: keeping the body company, preparing the body for burial, and coming together to comfort the mourners. Putting our community at a distance goes against centuries of Jewish practices. Yet now, we must physically distance ourselves, even in mourning.
Changes Before, During and After a Funeral
The ritual of tahara, the washing, dressing and casketing of the body in the traditional Jewish manner, has been suspended for the time being. This is for the safety of the Chevrah Kadisha volunteers who do this sacred work and their loved ones. Also suspended is the tradition of having a shomer, one who watches over the body before the funeral.
Almost all funeral homes can help families make funeral arrangements virtually, either over the phone or by computer. In addition to having everyone present at a funeral wear a face mask, you will likely experience these changes:
- In-person funerals have been limited to 10 people at the most, spaced at least six feet apart. With a clergy person and a funeral director, that means only eight immediate family members can participate in person. Fortunately, 10 Jews makes a minyan.
- Most funeral homes are offering some sort of virtual attendance for funerals, either an online live video stream from a funeral home chapel or a recorded video afterward. Video recordings or live-streaming of graveside funerals can be made by the funeral home or a family member.
- Check with your clergy person whether to do the ritual of keriah, the tearing of clothing or a ribbon by members of the immediate family just prior to the funeral.
- The ritual of placing earth on the casket at the cemetery may be altered to avoid viral transmission through communal touching of a shovel or trowel.
The tradition of sitting shivah, receiving the support of your community in person at home after the funeral, is discouraged. As with most everything else these days, shivah visits have gone virtual through Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and other video services.
While a funeral is taking place, consider having a friend set up the home for shivah, covering mirrors and photos, arranging for low-to-the-ground seating, and preparing food. Have a tech-savvy person arrange for online video visits. Work with your local clergy regarding holding virtual prayer services in the home.
One Jewish funeral ritual that’s very much in vogue these days is washing your hands. Traditionally, a pitcher of water and towels are made available at the cemetery and at the door to the house of mourning. Beyond a ritual splash of water, make sure you scrub with soap and water for 20 seconds whenever you return home from any trip outside.
Online Resources to Learn More
Here are informative YouTube videos and online resources to help you become better acquainted with Jewish funeral traditions and planning ahead for end-of-life issues.
- The Coronavirus Cinema Collection: Recommendations of movies that entertain while educating about funerals and end-of-life issues. These videos include “Jewish Funeral Traditions on Film,” which highlight Jewish rituals and traditions in the movies Nora’s Will, My Mexican Shivah, and This Is Where I Leave You. You can see all these film recommendation videos through this short link: https://bit.ly/CoronavirusCinema
- Jewish Funeral Traditions: This one-hour presentation explores Jewish rituals before, during and after a funeral. It was recorded at the Greater Albuquerque JCC’s Taste of Honey learning event in 2014. https://bit.ly/JewishFuneralTraditions
- Jewish Burial is Green Burial: This one-hour panel discussion features Donal Key with La Puerta Natural Burial Ground near Belen, Kilian Rempen with Albuquerque-based Passages International, a leading provider of green burial and eco-friendly funeral products, and Gail Rubin, CT, death educator and The Doyenne of Death®. https://bit.ly/JewishBurialGreenBurial
- Ethical Wills and Ecclesiastes: This 20-minute talk by Gail Rubin explores the concept of the ethical will and its connection to the Book of Ecclesiastes (to everything, there is a season…). https://bit.ly/EthicalWills
- Kosher Caskets by Fathers Building Futures: This local nonprofit builds beautiful, affordable kosher caskets. They provide jobs and skills to previously incarcerated fathers, offering opportunities for family stability. Several local funeral homes carry these caskets. The Jewish Federation of New Mexico supports this organization. https://bit.ly/FathersBuildingFutures
You can find these and other videos by searching for @Gail Rubin on YouTube.
About Gail Rubin, CT
Gail Rubin, Certified Thanatologist, is a pioneering death educator, member of the Albuquerque Chevrah Kadisha and Congregation Albert’s cemetery committee, and president of the nonprofit Historic Fairview Cemetery. A professional speaker who does virtual and in-person presentations, she’s also the author of three books on end-of-life issues. Download a free 10-page end-of-life information planning form and 50-point Executor’s Checklist from www.AGoodGoodbye.com.