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The Zoom shiva: Jewish funerals and mourning in the age of COVID

Social distancing is at odds with Jewish rules about burial and grieving, including the ritual of sitting shiva. Rabbis and families are getting creative.
JoAnn Bell with her husband, children and grandchildren
JoAnn Bell (left) with her husband, children and grandchildren.Courtesy Jacquelyn Bell

Jacquelyn Bell had to say goodbye to her mother, JoAnn, over the phone.

Joann, who was 73, battled multiple sclerosis most of her adult life, and survived three strokes and bouts of pneumonia. Bell always joked her mom had nine lives.

But on March 30, JoAnn died of COVID-19 in a Michigan hospital.

The night before she died, a nurse held a cellphone to JoAnn’s ear and Bell told her she loved her. But her mom, breathing via a ventilator, was too weak to answer.

“I'm by myself here and my dad's by himself and my brother's by himself,” said Bell from her home in Birmingham, Michigan, just 10 minutes from the hospital where her mother died. “So we couldn't even be there at all and be there for each other, be there for her.”

Jacquelyn Bell (center) with her mother JoAnn Bell and father Marshall Bell.Courtesy Jacquelyn Bell

As the U.S. coronavirus death toll tops 50,000, families are being forced to navigate grief in isolation. For Jewish families like Bell’s, coronavirus has also upended a highly structured process of mourning and burial. Jewish families and clergy are trying to find ways to uphold tradition while keeping loved ones safe.

Per Jewish religious law, burial is supposed to happen within 48 hours of death. The funeral service that follows is conducted by a rabbi or cantor and concludes with the shoveling of dirt into the grave by the deceased's loved ones.

Shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, begins right after the burial and continues for seven days. During the week of shiva, friends and relatives visit and comfort the family of the deceased. The ritual allows them to share their pain, but also to trade stories and memories of the person they’ve lost.

The process relies on immediacy and human interaction, two things coronavirus has crippled, even as the virus has hit Jewish seniors hard.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, New Jersey, is out of the house every day serving his 800-family congregation. Before the coronavirus, he conducted two funerals a week, but now he’s doing two a day.

“The numbers are just astronomical,” he said.

Because of the increase, the immediacy of burial has been an obstacle. He says cemeteries have told him the soonest they could have a burial is four to seven days after death, well beyond the two-day law.

Kirshner tries to help people cope with saying goodbye to loved ones in a way that’s different than they expected.

The Satnick family hosts a drive-by shiva outside their home in Demarest, N.J.Hal Satnick

“Sadly, there were other times in our history where we didn't know where our loved ones were buried,” he said. “So I try to orient people and give them a posture of what it is we can be thankful for.”

Kirshner has developed a format for a funeral in the age of COVID. They are graveside and they are small. A smart phone is mounted onto a tripod and most mourners attend via Zoom. Instead of a shovel to pour earth onto the coffin, each person who is there in person brings a disposable cup.

Jewish tradition defines seven relations as immediate mourners: wife, husband, sister, brother, daughter, son and parent. Some cemeteries, however, only allow one mourner to physically attend the funeral.

Many times immediate mourners cannot attend but wish to take an active role in the funeral. Kirshner uses the spotlight feature on Zoom if someone attending virtually wants to read a eulogy. He does his best to create the feeling of a chapel.

A paradox of these COVID-influenced virtual funerals is that they actually increase attendance. Because of the accessibility of Zoom and the number of people who are homebound, Kirshner said there have been funerals where more than 200 computers have joined the Zoom conference.

“That's been really important, the way that people have leveraged technology in this time to be supportive,” he said. “I think that there's been some value in that human touch as best as it could be.”

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, N.J., conducted the funeral of Madeline Satnick via Zoom.David-Seth Kirshner / Satnick family

Kirshner conducted the funeral and shiva of Madeline Satnick via Zoom. She did not die of coronavirus, but the pandemic did affect her burial. Her grandchildren couldn’t attend and had to watched the funeral from home.

“It was really hard because we're literally sitting there watching, wishing we could be supporting our loved ones physically,” said her granddaughter Marti Satnick.

She and her siblings watched their mother poured earth on Madeline’s coffin on their behalf by reciting each of their names as she did it.

The family found comfort in the virtual funeral, but felt the Zoom shiva was clunky and sapped of the intimacy one craves during mourning. They decided to have a second, drive-by shiva, with permission of the local police, so friends could say their condolences through a car window.

Madeline’s son Hal said he found he needed the second shiva because it helped him mourn her in a way that felt closer to normal.

“It's a very personal thing of what means what to you,” he said.

Sherri Bensimon is a licensed funeral director at Riverside Memorial Chapel, a Jewish funeral home in New York City. She is the face of Riverside Memorial for the bereaved. Her job is to handle the arrangements with the city and the cemetery, and also provide in-person comfort and advice.

The outbreak forced her to close her office doors and provide counsel virtually. Instead of meeting with the families of the deceased, she conducts everything over the phone and on Zoom. Steps in the burial process are drawn out because everyone is working remotely and she’s forced to deliver unwelcome news about the new rules for burial without any in-person intimacy.

Bensimon often has to tell her customers that cemeteries in the hard-hit New York area are struggling to keep up and she’s unable to get burials done on the prescribed Jewish timeline.

“I have to say to them, ‘I'm sorry, but they are inundated or they are overbooked or they just don't have the time to do this right now and I'm sorry,’” she said. “Mostly what I've been saying all day is just, ‘I'm sorry, I'm sorry.’”

After the funeral, the final part of Bensimon’s job is officially beginning the bereaved family’s observance of shiva. She does this by giving the family a shiva candle, which serves as the beacon for the soul to come to the family while it “sits shiva.” The candle is supposed to burn all week long.

Since everyone within a family is mourning separately, she has had to give out more candles for each death and is now running low. She arranged a recent funeral for a family with six adult children and one spouse. Normally she’d give one candle for all of them but all seven family members needed their own.

“Obviously I want to give as many as they need, but I don't have enough to give to everyone,” she said.

Back in Michigan, the Bell family had a socially distant graveside funeral for JoAnn. Only 10 family members attended, including JoAnn's husband of 51 years, Marshall. The service was live-streamed for those who were not allowed to be present for the service. At the end of the service, each of the attendees placed dirt and a bouquet of purple flowers on JoAnn's coffin. Bell said purple was her mom's favorite color.

For Bell, the mourning has been incredibly difficult. Though she’s gotten calls and FaceTimes from friends and family, she didn’t have any kind of shiva, Zoomed or otherwise, so she feels like she missed out.

“There's nothing like sitting next to somebody and getting a hug or sharing a story in person,” she said.

Bell said she already started planning an in-person memorial for when social distancing and travel restrictions are lifted, and JoAnn's legacy can be celebrated by friends and family. But the interim will be difficult. The virtual nature of Bell's mourning process has made it difficult for her to fully sink into her grief.

"It doesn't feel like she's actually gone," said Bell.