Because of the strict lockdown in long-term care facilities, Matt Strauss hadn’t seen his mother for more than a month at her Marblehead nursing home. She did not have COVID-19, but with the isolation that came with being separated from her family she lost her will to live. She stopped eating and drinking. On April 27, Strauss and his family exchanged their last words with his mother via FaceTime, and the next day – 10 days shy of her 90th birthday – Barbara Strauss passed away.
“It was not like anything you’ve ever heard or experienced before,” said Matt Strauss, a former Swampscott selectman. “It’s difficult to mourn, and it’s difficult for my wife and kids to mourn.”
Jewish tradition plays a major role in death and mourning – from the burial, where the Kaddish and other prayers are recited, to the collective support mourners receive from friends and family during Shiva. But in this time of the coronavirus, nearly every aspect of tradition and mourning has been upended in order to prevent the virus from spreading.
The layers of grief have compounded the mourning, which now begins even before death. With hospitals prohibiting patient visits, families have had to say goodbye to their loved ones on the phone or through FaceTime. At funerals, families have been unable to accompany the deceased, watching from cars as the casket is wheeled by cemetery employees to the plot, and lowered. Once the casket is in the ground, family members can step forward to the grave if they wear a mask and maintain a 6-foot distance from each other, with a maximum of 10 people allowed.
Services are brief – often there’s only enough time for a short eulogy and a few prayers. Families are allowed to take part in the Jewish custom of placing dirt on the casket but must do so with their hands, or using a shovel brought from home. Then they are asked to return to their cars as cemetery workers fill the grave. When they return home, there are no friends or relatives waiting to pay their respects at a Shiva. Many who seek solace have turned to Zoom, where virtual Shivas are held.
“It’s very challenging to deal with both the loss of a loved one and the added frustration and sadness of not being able to grieve and mourn properly,” said Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad of the North Shore, who has officiated at 14 funerals in the last 10 weeks, including days where he has conducted two within a matter of hours.
Lipsker, who recites Psalm 91 when he walks behind the casket before it is lowered to the grave, said many of the funerals he officiated at were attended by just a handful of people. He believes that the COVID-19 health crisis has added another layer to the already complex process of mourning, causing people to be more conscious of their own fragile existence.
“The level of internalizing and personalizing was suddenly far more real in the sense that even the most healthy person attending a funeral like that had to take a look at their own mortality in a far more serious way. And it was challenging to be able to entertain their strong emotions while navigating a very tricky set of regulations,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi David Meyer, who leads Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, has also officiated at numerous funerals since March, and has observed the pain that comes when relatives cannot say their final goodbyes in person.
“I think that the hardest part for a lot of the families has been the isolation prior to a loved one’s passing – not being able to get into the hospital as you normally would, not being able to have physical contact with one another. You know, you want to love someone you love who is hurting and you can’t do that,” said Meyer.
Still, families that attend their loved one’s funerals have the opportunity to perform one of the most significant positive commandments in Judaism, according to Meyer. “Escorting a loved one to their final resting place, the act of burial, is considered to be one of the highest and greatest of all the mitzvot,” Meyer explained. “It’s called Mitzvah shel Emet, a true deed of kindness because it can’t be repaid and it must be done. And so I try to assure the small number who gather at graveside that while the gathering is modest, the significance of what’s going on can’t even be measured.”
Rabbi Alison Adler, of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, is mindful that even during a pandemic a person can receive a proper Jewish burial. “We’re still doing the essential things. We’re still honoring the person; we’re still doing the Jewish rituals. And I think that helps people see the essence of what’s going on. And even though it’s strange, we’re still doing it,” she noted.
Rabbis also have assisted in live-streaming funerals during the past few months. Recently, Adler and a funeral director were the sole people at the last two funerals at which she officiated, and she was able to live-stream the video of the burial to relatives watching at home. When it came to filling the grave, Adler reached down and scooped up some earth and placed it in on the casket. “I am your hands,” she told the relatives of the deceased. “You can’t place the earth in, so I’m doing it on your behalf.”
While none of the rabbis believe that a Zoom Shiva can replace a face-to-face conversation or a hug, Adler believes the technology is here to stay. “I am so grateful for the technology. I can’t imagine going through all of this without it. Because at least people can connect, they can see their loved one is being buried, and they can connect with their families and share a eulogy. All of these things are still possible,” said Adler.
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody has done more than a dozen funerals since the spring. He also believes the added technology to assist the mourners is here to stay. But livestream funerals and virtual Shivas can never replace comforting a mourner, said Perlman.
“We need to get back to being able to hug, and console. But what we’re doing right now is we’re in that mode where we’re at least trying to figure out ways of getting through the pandemic so we can get back to the normal Shiva,” said Perlman, who added that relatives will not be able to truly mourn until the health crisis ends. At the point, he expects families will hold celebration of life events, where they can properly remember their loved ones.
“Until they start to be able to get together and relive that person’s life without these masks on, and sit together in a home and smile and cry together, things are not going to be good,” said Perlman. “They will only get better when this pandemic gets to a point where people can start to be communal again. We have to be communal. That’s who we are.
“The society has to get back to a point where we are not afraid of each other, and where we’re able to hug each other. That’s when we’ll get back to the way it has to be. We’ll have to live through this now until we get the vaccine.”
Email Steven A. Rosenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.