A year into COVID, Zoom funerals are still surreal

I waited outside the main office building of Beth Moses Cemetery in Long Island. It was a bright, cold day.

I’d been there many times before. Normally the spot is a swirl of activity, with cars snaking around every driveway, funeral directors talking shop in small clumps and crowds of mourners greeting one another with hugs and handshakes.

But almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the plaza was empty, and the office building was barred to visitors. Through an intercom, I identified myself as a funeral officiant, and an employee told me to wait outside for the hearse to meet me.

Community | A year into COVID, Zoom funerals are still surreal

From my cell phone deep in my pocket, I could hear the muffled, familiar sounds of a Zoom call, with the subject “Funeral for Ruth.”

“Doris, you’re on mute!”

“Mom, we can’t see you – turn on your camera!”

“Who am I talking to right now?”

When the pandemic first began to spread across the U.S., Jewish communities had to make rapid, painful adjustments to distanced funerals, shivas and unveilings, along with distanced versions of everything else. Now, a year later, these adjustments might have begun to feel more ordinary, but acclimation does not make them any easier. What has become routine for those of us who officiate them is still painfully raw for families going through them for the first time.

So it was with Ruth’s family. She had lived a long life full of many blessings, followed by a brief illness and a death with dignity. Yet her family’s grief was profound. Although Ruth did not die from COVID-19, the pandemic impacted every aspect of her transition out of this life. In order to be near her in her final days, her family gathered in Florida, where she and her husband retired 30 years ago. But this travel prevented them from making another trip back for the funeral. Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, I was the only person who would accompany Ruth’s mortal remains to their final resting place, sharing the experience with the mourners on my cell phone.

We Jews often say, “We do grief well.” Jewish mourning traditions are full of emotional and sensory touchpoints that can help ground us after losing a loved one, from the sound of the earth striking the coffin at the graveside, to the warm presence of guests visiting the home during the shiva period following burial. The pandemic robbed Ruth’s family of these experiences. The family’s sense of loss upon loss was evident when I met with them via Zoom the day before her funeral, a stark reminder that, amidst this year of pandemic, even an “anticipated” death can bring shockwaves of devastation.

But ritual, even mediated through technology, still gives some direction amidst life’s uncertainty. Once at the graveside, with my rabbis’ manual in one hand and my phone in the other, I guided the mourners in performing the ancient rite of k’riah, or tearing a piece of fabric to represent an un-mendable loss. We recited psalms and prayers, and I offered a reflection on Ruth’s life. When the time came to place earth in the grave, I balanced my phone, my notes and the shovel at the same time. It wasn’t graceful, but that wasn’t important. What was: making sure Ruth’s husband, children and friends heard the unmistakable thud of freshly-dug earth landing on pinewood.

It was, for all intents and purposes, a “normal” funeral, if such a thing could be said to exist. But I never completely forgot that I was standing alone at the open grave, the family’s sole emissary.

After the service concluded, I hesitated. Usually, at this moment of a funeral, the rabbi might quietly back away, allowing the mourners some time alone at the grave. But I was hosting the Zoom meeting; if I turned it off, it would end the meeting for everyone. So, I waited patiently while the mourners logged off, one by one. Finally, the Zoom meeting was over, and I was truly alone, watching from a distance as the cemetery workers shoveled the remaining earth into Ruth’s grave. Jewish tradition holds that, in the period after someone dies, their neshama, or spirit, hovers near their body. I imagined Ruth’s neshama nearby, attended only by some workers and a rabbinical student she had never met. It felt wrong to leave just yet.

So I waited and watched. My phone was lifeless in my pocket, my headphones were out of my ears, my notes and my manual were tucked away and my mind was clear of the logistics on which I’d been focused. Suddenly, my own feelings, which I had set aside while managing the Zoom funeral, bubbled up to the surface. I too live thousands of miles from my family; my greatest fear in this past year has been that “something might happen” and I’d be unable to be there. I could not bear the thought of going through what Ruth’s family just experienced – a funeral without closure, a death without resolution. And yet, like so much this past year, it was beyond my control.

I waited a few more minutes, until the workers from Beth Moses climbed back into their bulldozer and headed off to their next assignment. Then I whispered “Goodbye,” got back in my car and drove home.

Community | A year into COVID, Zoom funerals are still surreal

David Shmidt Chapman is the rabbinic intern at Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan and a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

A year into COVID, Zoom funerals are still surreal

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A year into COVID, Zoom funerals are still surreal

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