Many rabbis are being called upon to perform funerals remotely or online during the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Rabbi Daniel Cohen shares learnings from holding a funeral over Zoom. For reflections upon shivah minyan held over Zoom, Rabbi Mara Nathan has shared her experience here.
Aside from Jewish values and the decision that need to be made regarding virtual funerals, I have found that some seemingly mundane elements can make the difference between a service that feels smooth and hopefully, comforting, and one that feels like just another Zoom call. Here are some of practical considerations I’ve embraced.
Perhaps the most important thing I do during the initial intake conversation is reframe the entire approach. I acknowledge directly the sadness of not being able to be together. Often I have shared the Talmudic dictum not to publicly display the chanukiyah at a time of danger. We are not only encouraged, but instructed, to find a path that mitigates the risk. This explanation has been effective in helping families feel they are “not doing anything wrong.”
The rest of the intake tends to run pretty similarly to in-person funerals with the exception of being clearer than ever that I need to know who is speaking, and in what order, well before the actual funeral, not only so I can determine how many and which readings to include, but also so I am clear who I will be calling on and unmuting during the service.
Here are some steps that have proven most effective in our community:
- Create a Zoom link that the family can share with others.
- Set Zoom settings to require that everyone remain in the waiting room until we are ready to begin.
- Make sure participants are muted when they arrive.
- Select the setting that does not allow people to unmute themselves.
- I ask the family to send me photos of their loved one. I put together a Powerpoint of those pictures along with Kaddish and other prayers, Psalms, or readings I want people to be able to participate in. Showing some pictures before we formally begin the service has been a powerful way to help close the physical gap people are feeling.
- Ask the family to log into Zoom 15 to 20 minutes early. This helps make sure they are all comfortable with Zoom and allows their windows to be at the top of the screen when the “speaker view” is selected.
- Five minutes before the scheduled time, we cut k’riah. Our funeral homes have not been providing families with ribbons, so people are cutting their shirt or pinning a strip of cloth on their clothing to cut. I’ve asked our local funeral homes to begin providing ribbons to families.
- Once people are admitted from the “waiting room,” I show the family pictures, welcome everyone, and acknowledge to all attendees that this is far from ideal, but that it is a fitting tribute to a loved one to do everything possible to keep people healthy and safe.
In most cases, by the time I have finished the initial conversation with the family, they have decided not to have anyone at the cemetery except the funeral director. For a recent funeral, one of the adult children went to the cemetery but stayed in his car. I have yet to be asked to be physically present at the cemetery.
I verbally call on and unmute each person when it is their turn to speak. A few times families have taken advantage of Zoom by sending me a short video montage to share during the service. It initially struck me as odd, but it has been such a powerfully beautiful tribute that I’ve started suggesting it to families.
I have El Malei and Kaddish on Powerpoint slides and put those up when the time comes. For Kaddish, I share that having everyone read together creates a cacophony, but that the power of hearing others outweighs the awkwardness. I unmute everyone and then lead Kaddish with them all reading as well. It’s chaotic, but it’s also quite moving.
After Kaddish, I put up a slide that has information about sending donations in the deceased’s memory and any shivah information.
Most families have wanted to have the chance to spend time together on Zoom after the service. To accommodate this, I have identified someone who will take control of muting and unmuting speakers. That allows me to leave, but it also ensures there is some structure and that they can stay on and spend time together. The first time I did it, a granddaughter of the deceased volunteered to manage it. After the service she became emotional, realizing that she was so focused on the technology, she wasn’t able to be fully present. It was a powerful insight neither she nor I expected. I have since begun asking the families to identify someone who is not a family member to assume this role.
A few conclusions:
- By acknowledging up front that a Zoom funeral is far from ideal, and offering a values-focused rationale for the approach, people become quite understanding and appreciative.
- By including photos and prayer slides, families not only feel “invited in,” but they also appreciate the additional effort. That, in turn, helps them feel cared for.
- By rigidly structuring the speakers, I’m able to keep some semblance of order.
- By including the Kaddish slide and unmuting everyone, the family feels surrounded by the love of family and community.
- By allowing people to speak after the formal service is done, the mourners feel that love and connection even more.
Zoom funerals are far from ideal, but every single time I have done a Zoom funeral, the family has later shared their surprise at how meaningful and moving the experience was.
We all have to take into account the religious boundaries we have set for ourselves and deal with other philosophical issues. In this time of COVID-19, I have chosen to focus more on the emotional and spiritual needs of mourners at a time when they cannot embrace one another. This is what has driven my approach.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen is the senior rabbi at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, New Jersey.