COVID-19 prompts changes in Jewish funeral rituals
Jewish cemetery: Star of David on the tombstone

With coronavirus, area funeral homes modify tahara procedure

By Amy Wolff Sorter

A set of rituals exists when it comes to burial in the Jewish faith. Once the body reaches the funeral home, there is the preparation by the chevra kadisha (the sacred burial society), which prepares the body through ritual purification (tahara). Afterward, the chevra dresses the body in shrouds (tachrichim), before reverently placing it into a plain, wooden coffin. In all, “Jewish burial is meant to be simple,” said Zane Belyea, owner/community relations of Dallas Jewish Funerals in Plano. 

However, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jewish rituals surrounding death and interment have undergone a change. Shuls, in most cases, are closed to the public; only clergy are present, with services being streamed via Zoom, Facebook Live and other platforms. Graveside services are restricted to a scant few friends and relatives. And, due to social distancing guidelines and safety requirements, funeral homes are working hard to adapt, especially within the realm of Jewish practice.

“The word that comes to mind is ‘fluid,’” said Dan Adams, location manager and funeral director with Dallas-based Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home and Hillcrest Memorial Park. Adams added that working with the deceased and their loved ones has required rapid adjustments to “various city, county and state guidelines, while continuing to provide a high level of service excellence.”

The adjustments are apparent from the beginning, at the start of final arrangements. Rather than having families come in to meet with the staff (or having the staff meet with family in their homes), in many cases, “it’s being done via conference calls, webinar or phone,” Belyea said.

Robertson Mueller Harper Funeral Home in Fort Worth has also moved much of its administrative activities online, with the staff making arrangements with families via phone and internet. “Our doors are locked, and we ask families to call and let us know if they are coming,” said E.C. “Trey” Harper III, managing director of the home. “We exercise social distancing.”

The large change is focused on care of the deceased. Tahara requires a great deal of physical contact with the body, in preparation for its burial. Also involved is a shomer, a person who watches over the body between arrival at the funeral home, and the trip to the cemetery. Given that physical contact is severely limited these days, tahara and shemira have either ceased, or been modified. 

Harper explained that he and his team have tended to the loved ones of the Jewish community and understand the importance of treating the deceased with the respect that tahara ensures. Harper reached out to Rabbi Andrew Bloom at Congregation Ahavath Sholom for advice. The rabbi requested that all tahara cease until restrictions are lifted. “We had already bathed the bodies before the chevra arrived, we understand how the shroud goes on and how the body is placed in the casket,” Harper added. He went on to say that the funeral home hasn’t requested shomrim in years. However, “our personal policy is that we never leave any person in our care unattended by our staff,” Harper said. Rabbi Bloom explained that as of Monday afternoon, the chevra will be permitted to perform tahara, if the cause of death is unrelated to COVID-19. “We have halachic precedent which is now coming out of Israel to perform tahara,” Bloom said.

Much like his Fort Worth counterpart, Belyea also reached out to area rabbis for advice, with the end result being no shomrim present and limited chevra involvement. Dallas Jewish Funerals is handling tahara, with a chevra representative saying prayers, prior to the body’s removal to the cemetery. Said Belyea: “The ritual has had to be modified for safety reasons.” 

At Sparkman/Hillcrest, tahara depends on the circumstances; Adams said that if the deceased was either presumptive COVID-19 or had the virus, “a modified version of the tahara is done, that protects any and all involved.” In addition, the funeral home has requested the minimal number of chevra kadisha members present. “The groups we serve with are all very understanding, and often have their own guidelines to follow, in addition to ours,” Adams added.

As Jewish tradition requires that the body be interred as quickly as possible after death, “we suggest you have a private service and burial, as soon as you can, and get that done,” Harper said. “At some future time, when this is all done, have a memorial service, with a reception after that.”

With a limited number of people allowed at the gravesite, creative ways are underway to ensure more involvement. One such method has been to stream the burial on Zoom or Facebook Live, so family and friends can observe the ritual. Belyea, for one, believes that virtual graveside services could become more common, even once coronavirus restrictions are lifted. “I don’t see travel coming back any time soon,” he commented. “Family members might not be able to make it to funerals, even when things start opening up, so we’re continuing the virtual types of options.”

Even with modifications, Adams acknowledged that the grief process has been profoundly impacted by current circumstances. Not only are mourners dealing with the struggle of losing a loved one, but also they are required to navigate the reality of COVID-19. “We have a responsibility, not only to educate the public, but to also ensure the safety of our communities, while providing the highest level of service possible,” he said. 

Belyea agreed that the ultimate goal, when it comes to funeral and burial arrangements, is the protection of those who are still alive. “Each and every loved one who has passed away would understand that,” he said. “They’d want those who are still living to be safe and healthy.”

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