It was winter, and his illness was terminal. The Milwaukee attorney asked his friend, Shorewood resident Ann Jacobs, for a favor. Would she organize a shiva gathering after his death, leaving one less thing for his widow to handle? It would be a single public-type event to memorialize him.
“I said, ‘Of course,’ thinking it was going to mean kugel and wine,” Jacobs said. “He didn’t want a service, but I said people need to say a prayer. So, we agreed we would say the Kaddish and a non-denominational prayer.”
Then came COVID-19. By the time her friend died at the end of March, the world was shutting down. What started as “kugel and wine” ended up as a Zoom and Facebook Live event with approx- imately 180 attendees.
The family spoke, followed by a reading of Sylvan Kamen and Rabbi Jack Riemer’s poem “We Remember Them,” and the Mourner’s Kaddish.
“There was a lot of chaos,” Jacobs said, citing bandwidth differences that caused delays in the congre- gational readings, “but it was very meaningful to have all these voices and faces praying together.”
After the prayers, attendees were invited to share memories. About an hour later, “we conclud- ed the service and it was lovely,” she said.
The necessity of altering an- cient rituals is a given, faced with the reality of a global pandemic. It’s especially fraught in the face of death, whatever the cause.
Wisconsin Council of Rabbis
For the foreseeable future, physical gatherings for funeral services, burials and shiva minyans simply cannot be. What that looks like locally was formalized by the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, which issued a set of guidelines last month.
“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 include grave- side services only with no more than 10 people, including funeral home and cemetery staff present. Rather than occurring at the end of the service, the casket is lowered into the ground prior to mourners’ arrival, and each mourner is required to bring his or her own shovel to place earth on the grave.
The overriding commandment, “pikuah nefesh,” safeguard- ing of life, write the rabbis, is “a bedrock principle of Jewish law, and supersedes most other obligations or mitzvot.”
Tahara, the ritual performed by the local Chevra Kadisha, has also been altered in order to comport with social distancing guidelines and safety, said Alan Borsuk, the group’s president, in an email.
“We fully intend to continue performing these pre-burial rituals in the best manner we can, but with a careful eye on the safety and health of the people who take part,” he wrote. “We have been tak- ing extra steps to assure that. It is halachically permissible to make some modifications in the rituals when that is necessary.”
For local funeral directors, too, ensuring that the lives of those for whom they’re conducting funer- als are honored at the same time their surviving loved ones remain healthy is key.
“One of my greatest fears is – we cannot have funerals creating funerals,” said Tom Andrus, licensed funeral director at Goodman Bensman Jewish Funeral Home. “We’re trying to honor a person’s life by keeping everybody else’s safe from a virus we don’t know much about yet, except that it’s very contagious and can be deadly.”
Shortening the service, said Ed Suminski, licensed funeral di- rector at Suminski-Weiss Funer- al Home, is one way that’s being accomplished.
“Typically, a graveside service would run about an hour, now they’re running about 20 minutes,” he said.
Additionally, because every person in attendance counts, “I had a funeral recently where we had 10 people, so me and the other assistant stepped away and were called in (after).”
Charlie and Blane Goodman, licensed funeral directors at Blane Goodman Funeral Service, have encountered the opposite situation, as has Andrus.
Streaming funeral services
“I did a remote service last week where we were the only ones out there,” Charlie said. “All the immediate family lived out of town and were not comfortable travel- ing, which is sound practice these days, so we were the eyes and the ears out at the cemetery and ev- erybody else Zoomed in remotely, including the rabbi.”
In those cases, the funeral directors set up a tripod, attach their phone and open the Zoom app in order to stream the service.
It’s something, Blane said, that the families with whom they work are adapting.
“People have been very understanding,” he said. “I haven’t had any pushback from the restrictions even though very few people knew what Zoom was two months ago. As they become more comfortable and knowledgeable about ways to engage remotely, it becomes part of our general knowledge – ‘Here’s the link, I’ll log in at this time and be part of the service virtually.’”
Andrus had similar observations.
“The community has been unbelievable through this,” Andrus said. “Their understanding and willingness to do what they need to do to keep everybody safe while respecting their loved one.”