In Jewish death rituals as in life, coronavirus is changing everything
For many Jews, it is one of the most visceral of rituals: helping shovel the dirt to cover a casket of a loved one. At a recent graveside service, before the stricter limits on public gatherings kicked in, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner explained a new part of the ritual.
“If you are wearing gloves, you can shovel earth on the grave and place the shovel in the dirt for the exact next person with gloves to participate,” Kirshner, head rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, N.J., instructed mourners. “If you do not have gloves, you can use your bare hands to throw earth in the grave.”
Like virtually everything else in religious — and non religious — life, the familiar, centuries-old Jewish practices around death and dying are adapting to the age of coronavirus. Even as communities brace for possible spikes in death caused by the virus, it has already created a different kind of distance between the living and the dead, snuffing out the comfort of the human touch in the most vulnerable moments.
Rabbi Kirshner, who heads a Conservative congregation of 800 families, on Monday conducted his first death-bed prayers without being able to hold the dying person’s hand.
“Today, I had my first ‘virtual’ hospital visit of a member of our community who is dying,” Kirshner said in an interview. “I could not be physically present at the hospital bedside, but a nurse held the hand of the patient and oriented the FaceTime iPad towards her face while I chanted the misheberach prayer and sang Avinu Malkenu and offered the vidui prayer.”
Across the United States, rabbis and Jewish funeral homes are imposing rules that only graveside services be held with limited attendance. Shiva, the seven-day period in which friends and neighbors visit the mourners in their homes, are now being conducted via Zoom. And taharah, a ritual of purification after death, is being done with increased personal bodily protection and other changes to the ritual.
Restrictions are even more draconian in other countries with strong traditional practices surrounding death and burial. Italy has banned funeral services, only allowing priests to say a brief prayer with family members at burial. There is a pile-up there of coffins at churches and bodies at hospital morgues. In the United Kingdom, funeral directors are considering streaming the rites over Facebook.
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Traditionally, congregational rabbis and chaplains at hospitals, hospices and nursing homes make regular in-person visits to the sick and dying. Rabbinical students undergo training on how to attend to their needs and those of their relatives. Physical presence at hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and other locations is lesson one.
That lesson now has to be revised.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers is an expert on crisis, death, and adaptability. He is the rabbi at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 worshipers were murdered during Shabbat services in 2018.
On Monday, Rabbi Myers performed his first funeral in this new era of social-distancing. It was conducted at graveside, family only, and no public information was published about the burial. He suggested the shiva be limited to only family members, with a minyan — the quorum of 10 required to recite the memorial prayer — assembled from that group or put together online.
Asked whether he was concerned about his own exposure to the virus, Myers said, “I have to trust my families.”
One of the most intimate of moments in Judaism is taharah, a last touch and purification in preparation of the body for burial.
The required steps, performed separately for men and women at a funeral home, involve washing and purifying the body and dressing the deceased in cotton or linen garments.
“It’s the most intimate thing,” said Malke Frank, a co-chair of the New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh, which conducts the ritual there. “It’s so beautiful on how we can relate to someone we don’t know at all.” The 61 people who are part of the group handled nearly 100 bodies last year.
This would be the ultimate in close proximity to someone who may have had or died of the virus. In a recent Zoom meeting among members of the Pittsburgh group, some said they didn’t want to do taharah at this time, and others suggested modifications like no physical contact, but readings and prayers, she said. Responses like these came from all ages.
As deaths are expected to increase from the coronavirus, questions are being asked about what protective equipment to use and how and where to procure the coverings, masks and face shields for taharah in light of the need for the equipment by medical professionals—an ethical quandary. One of the recent pleas from federal government officials is to conserve the use of protective equipment to frontline doctors and nurses.
David Zinner, executive director of Kovod v’ Nichum, a national organization that trains communities and organizations in the taharah ritual, and other experts have been fielding questions from volunteers who do the washing, funeral directors, and medical professionals on the teams in online sessions about personal safety and changes in procedures for taharah. The organization has scheduled call-in sessions for the next five Mondays.
The organization has recommendations on its website, jewish-funerals.org, and an encyclopedic listing of scientific research and recommendations. One is reinforcing covering the face with a plastic shield, in part for protection and in part as a reminder not to touch the face—one of the general coronavirus protection measures.
“We have to look at science and not panic,” Zinner said. Because of the extensive coverings that are used, he said, “in some ways, we are better protected in the taharah room than at the supermarket.”
Cindy Skrzycki, a former reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, is a visiting professor in public policy at McGill University in Montreal.