To my colleagues and community,
I officiated at the funeral of a wonderful man who, while fighting cancer, was felled by COVID-19. This appears to have been the first COVID-19 death at the cemetery where this funeral was held. Preparing for this funeral was intensely complex as the mortuary/cemetery and I were creating a protocol ex nihilo, as we went along. I fully expect that the cemetery and my personal practices will evolve as we learn more about this disease and as the numbers of dead increase dramatically. I am documenting what we did with colleagues to help you think through how to navigate this challenging situation.
I am a Reform rabbi—married, heterosexual, with children—working in a synagogue. I share this because these realities inform how I engage with tradition/minhag/halachah and how I make my rabbinic decisions. I recognize that the compromises and decisions I made will not speak to some.
What did we do?
- We had a burial.
- We held a community minyan service over Zoom and the oramiLIVE.com livestream (over 400+ people attended).
- Per the family’s wishes, we will hold an in-person memorial service once people can be together.
- I offered to accompany the aveilim to the grave for another ritual, after their tests come back negative.
Who can attend the burial of a deceased who had COVID-19?
We decided that family members who were in his presence, and thus at risk of infection, would not be able to attend until they tested negative. This included his wife, children, parents, and in-laws. (I do not believe I would have officiated if they insisted on attending.) They considered these options:
- Holding his body with a shomeir present, testing family members and waiting for results, and then burying later.
- Burying with a rabbi with or without other family members.
- Cremating, holding cremains until family could gather for burial.
- Livestreaming (FaceTime, Google hangouts, etc.) the graveside burial for the family only.
- Livestreaming the graveside burial for the community.
Ultimately, the rabbi and a few other family members attended. At the last minute, the wife/children decided to use Facetime to participate.
How We Maintained Safe Distancing
We made it clear to all—mortuary personnel, family attending—that we would maintain a strict policy of six to 10 feet of physical distancing. Sometimes it took repeated reminders to get everyone to stay at a distance; this is expected in a culture of caring through close presence and touch. My agreement with myself, the family, and most importantly, my wife, was that I would be exceedingly machmir (strict) about this.
- For this first funeral, my wife attended to be my monitor. While machmir about distancing, there were moments when my desire to comfort had me almost let down my guard. With a gesture and sometimes a loving pull, she reminded me to stay back.
- Mortuary personnel were instructed not to approach close to cars or people. A hand up in a “stop” gesture.
- Siddurim: I prepared prayer sheets and emailed them to attendees. That way they did not need to accept the siddurim from the personnel. (The cemetery says they wipe them down after each use.)
- Family attendees brought their own shovels, borrowed from neighbors, and personally wiped down. (The cemetery says they wipe them down after each use.) Attendees completely covered the casket before leaving.
- Family attendees remained at one side of the grave, appropriately spread out, I was at the other.
- K’riah: No direct aveilim (mourners) were present. I had the aveilim cut up a black shirt and pin it to their clothes; over FaceTime I led them in the blessing and instructed them to tear.
- Washing: I brought a reusable bottle of tap water to wash my hands before leaving.
- Kaddish/Minyan: Between the attendees, my wife, myself, Jewish personnel, and the family at home, we had a minyan for Kaddish. In truth, had we not had the Minyan, I would have had them recite Kaddish anyway.
How Did We Prepare the Body?
The deceased was received from the hospital morgue in a special bag that protects against spread of disease.
- I consulted with knowledgeable infectious disease and emergency room doctors about whether a body can transmit disease. They told me that there would not be the spray like from a cough or sneeze, but the body can hold onto disease like an inanimate object. The length of time of infection from a deceased with COVID-19 was as yet unclear. However, they strongly suggested we refrain from touching the body or washing it.
- Keeping bag closed: To minimize infection, we decided not to open the body bag (I do not know if the mourners knew this). The brother-in-law of the deceased approved that identification using the hospital tag would be sufficient.
- Tahara (preparing/washing the body): With mourners and family members, we decided not to do tahara because, (a) we did not want to endanger those who do the ritual (if medical personnel do not have sufficient personal protection equipment/PPE, surely those doing the ritual would not), (b) we did not want to take PPE away from the lifesaving work of medical personnel, (c) medical advice was that while washing, splatters or droplets might be dangerous.
- Tachrichim (dressing the body): The mourners initially wanted him buried with special clothes from home. Deciding that transporting and disinfecting these clothes represented an added risk, we agreed to do a modified tachrichim. The deceased was kept in the sealed bag, and the bagged body was wrapped in linen shrouds. A tallit, provided by the mortuary (purchased by family), was appropriately placed around the shoulder part of the deceased, with tzitzit cut as traditional . The necklace the family wanted him buried in—transferred from the hospital with his other personal items—was laid on the wrapped body in the coffin.
How did we care for the deceased community?
It became very clear that this death affected people in multiple ways and on multiple levels. The needs of the community felt similar to certain tragic deaths in Israel: it involved the whole community in multiple ways (forgive the imperfect comparison).
- Like after most deaths, they lost a dear friend, family member, co-worker;
- This was the first deceased they knew of this pandemic. This death made the pandemic more real and personal;
- They were horrified though understanding that the aveilim were unable to attend their loved one’s burial (many were worried about this happening to them in the future);
- They recognized this is just the first of many, many more deaths to come;
- They were struggling with their inability to offer condolences and support in usual ways—with hugs, attending minyanim, sending food, visiting the aveilim, etc.
What we did:
- We held a community minyan service over Zoom and the oramiLIVE.com livestream (over 400+ people attended). While called a minyan, we understood this would also be an unofficial community memorial service as well as a moment of group therapy.
- Cantor Doug Cotler and I led the minyan.
- We invited six people to speak for three minutes only. We interspersed with prayers and songs. We said Kaddish.
- I spent time betwixt and between counseling people through the complex emotions. Consulting with congregant-therapists helped me prepare for this.
- Also: I took care of myself. Sleeping in, taking time off, prescheduling therapy, and exercise.
Finally, I thank the leadership of the cemetery I worked with and our local clergy colleagues for working diligently to create, revise, and re-revise the protocols for preparation and burial for this evolving pandemic.
Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.