Wisconsin rabbis agree to funeral precautions

Area rabbis have agreed to uniform precautions for funerals, which include allowing cemetery staff to step away and discouraging distant-but-present attendance. 

The goal is to stay true to “halacha as informed by core Jewish values,” according to a statement issued by the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis. The Council has developed the guidelines for funerals to work within Wisconsin’s current Safer at Home order. 

“After meeting with local funeral directors, we decided it is important that we are all on the same page, all united in how to honor our traditions, while keeping family members, funeral staff, cemetery workers and clergy safe,” said Rabbi Steve Adams, president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis. 

The guidelines hold that funerals should be held briefly at graveside only, with no more than 10 individuals, including funeral home and cemetery staff present for the service. The casket should be lowered, and cemetery staff should step away before people assemble. Also, each mourner or household must bring their own shovels to place earth on the grave.  

Any form of distant-but-present attendance at the cemetery, even in cars, is strongly discouraged, according to the rabbis’ statement.  

Virtual shiva minyanim should also take place during the week of mourning. That’s when more complete eulogies and sharing about the deceased can take place. 

Rabbis of southeastern Wisconsin have met regularly throughout the COVID-19 crisis to establish best practices to support and sustain Jewish life while adhering to urgent public health directives, according to the rabbis’ statement. National sources have also been consulted.  

The funeral guidelines were adopted by the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis without objection. Among the rabbis in support are Adams, Marc Berkson, Michal Woll, Shari Shamah, Martyn Adelberg, Laurie Zimmerman, Ron Shapiro, Joel Alter, Dena Feingold, Jessica Barolsky, David Brusin and Moishe Steigmann. 

“The rabbis and other Jewish spiritual leaders have been having weekly video meetings since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Wisconsin,” Adams said. “We discuss various topics that affect our functioning under the new reality we are living with. 

The rabbis’ statement reads: “Current funerals and mourning practices may be disconcertingly different. But with Jewish tradition’s clear prioritization of life and safety and our own understanding of what is essential, (this) is what tradition teaches in our emergency situation. It considers the needs of the community and the nation while attending to the specific needs of vulnerable family members, funeral home and cemetery staff, and officiating clergy. We recognize that, as the pandemic and related public health and medical considerations evolve, our guidelines will likely change as well. 

The Wisconsin Council of Rabbis also cited four key values:  

Pikuah Nefesh,safeguarding life, is “a bedrock principle of Jewish law, and supersedes most other obligations or mitzvot.” 

Sakanat Nefeshot is the principle of acting responsibly in the realm of mitzvot when there is an active threat to human life present. In the present circumstance, it mandates that “participants, staff, and clergy should not be in positions where they will be unduly endangering their own life or the lives of their families due to pressure to restore activities.” 

She’at Hadehakor emergency circumstancereflects that “Jewish life has always made adjustments in times of emergency and crisis.” In other words, there are times when the normal rules do not apply. 

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazehor we are responsible one for another means that it is “our job to look out for the mental and physical health and safety of one another.” 

The rabbis’ guidelines also call for physical distancing and masks.  

Other guidelines include:  

  • Cemetery staff will return to the gravesite when the mourners have finished shoveling and have left. 
  • A memorial service with hespedshould be scheduled for an alternative time via video conferencing, perhaps after the return from the cemetery, or for a future time when gatherings are no longer prohibited, perhaps at the dedication of the matzevah 
  • Virtual shivaminyanimshould also take place during the week of mourning at which time for more complete eulogies and sharing about the deceased can take place. 

These guidelines may change as the situation changes, according to the Council.