Funerals on Zoom: How Israelis Grieve in the Time of Coronavirus

The need for social distancing is interfering with mourning, too, but as some people struggle without hugs, others find positive aspects to virtual final farewells

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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A funeral of a man who died of COVID-19, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, March 2020.
A funeral of a man who died of COVID-19, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, March 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On Passover Eve, Esther Nahoun of Kfar Sava died of complications from the coronavirus. Her family, who couldn’t surround her with love in her final days, now had to face the next painful burden.

Esther, who was 90, is survived by nine children, 30 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren, six siblings and dozens of nieces and nephews. But because of the Health Ministry directives limiting funerals to 20 people, most of the family had to watch the ceremony on their cellphones.

“I hope you know that we were all with you. We may have been physically far away, but we never left you for a moment,” her niece Tamar wrote in a eulogy she posted on Facebook.

“The death of a loved one is always sad and painful. Death in the time of the coronavirus is crueler and more unbearable,” she wrote, expressing the feelings of many Israelis who in recent weeks have been forced to find creative ways to bid farewell to their loved ones.

“I ‘attended’ my aunt’s funeral. I sat in front of the screen and watched the funeral from afar …. I can’t even begin to describe how unreal and painful it is to deal with a situation like this. How hard it is not to hug anyone. How hard it is to mourn alone,” Tamar wrote.

In recent weeks, many other families have used Facebook as a platform to eulogize their loved ones, expressing frustration at having to part from their loved ones this way.

“We’ve been deprived of the basic consolation of a warm embrace,” wrote Alon Chen after his uncle’s death. Ido Yamin described a similar experience following the death of his father, noted Jerusalem painter Yitzhak Yamin.

The funeral of a man who died of COVID-19, Ashkelon, April 2, 2020.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov / AP

“As my father was a well-known figure in Jerusalem and came from a large family with 12 siblings, we believe that hundreds of people who knew and cherished him would have come to pay their respects and escort him on his final journey,” he added.

“It pains us that only a few people got to hear the eulogies about him as a father and family man. It would have been easier on us if all those who loved him could have come to his funeral.”

One of Yitzhak’s Yamin’s daughters, who was stuck abroad because of the coronavirus, had to watch her father’s funeral on Zoom. She sent her eulogy so someone at the funeral could read it for her.

As Ido Yamin puts it, “With him too, before he died, family and friends couldn’t visit him in the hospital, so we were feeling the loneliness and isolation before the funeral. The pain only intensified during the shivah. Friends of our parents and the extended family couldn’t come. My mother said the loneliness was felt more strongly at the shivah because of the separation.”

Kaddish by cellphone

Other families, though, have managed to find some solace despite the restrictions. Fewer than 10 people attended the funeral of Dov Ben-Dov, a former national sharpshooting champion.

“We didn’t advertise the time of the funeral because we knew the restrictions,” says his daughter Anat, adding that one of his sons, who lives in the United States, wasn’t at the funeral either. “He said Kaddish over his cellphone,” she notes.

Each child sat shivah alone, in their own home. Anat Ben-Dov says she still found a positive angle. “There was something very focused about doing it alone, without all the hubbub and distractions,” she says.

The funeral of Rabbi Benzion Kupferstock, during the coronavirus crisis, Jerusalem, April 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Ofra, daughter of Arie Even, the first Israeli to die of COVID-19, couldn’t attend her father’s funeral because she was in quarantine due to the possibility that she was also infected.

“We didn’t want to take a chance and infect someone or get infected ourselves, so each of us sat shivah at home and didn’t receive visitors,” she says. “It was a virtual shivah. I never took my eyes off the phone. Hundreds of people wrote to me. They say the purpose of a shivah is a social embrace. Well, I definitely felt embraced.”

Michal Monka’s grandmother, Fortuna, who lived through two world wars, died last month at 97. “How can you picture a woman who built a family and raised a fantastic and loving small tribe, who was so giving and who looked after everyone, being buried with just 10 mourners standing there in masks and gloves, at a distance from one another, paying her their last respects?” Monka wrote on Facebook.

“How can you picture a mother reciting a eulogy for her deceased mother, sobbing and crying, while her children who are standing 2 meters away can’t hug her? ... How is it possible to say Kaddish when the last one to complete the minyan is the grandson on a video who lives in a faraway country and couldn’t come …. How is it possible to bury a grandmother without being able to sit shivah for her?”

Still, a few days later, Monka was able to “make lemonade out of the lemons,” as she wrote on Facebook. In their pain over the loss of her grandmother, the family was forced to hold a shivah of a different kind: a worldwide WhatsApp group with the whole family.

“We located and added all the distant cousins and relatives we had always only heard about. The whole far-flung family united in honor of my grandmother – pictures, stories, video. Suddenly we discovered a lot of details we didn’t know about her. It was so moving. It felt like a real shivah except that it didn’t evaporate after seven days.”

The grave of a man who died of COVID-19, Ashkelon, April 2, 2020.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov / AP

‘For dust though art’ in the corona age too

Avraham Manale of the Tel Aviv burial society adds: “At first it was hard to explain it to the families, but they eventually understood the situation and now people have come to grips more with the restrictions. It’s an unprecedented situation. We’ve had to hold funerals before, during emergencies and wars, but it was never anything like this and over such a long period.”

Manale says the burial society people are “making every effort, despite the restrictions, to preserve the burial customs and religious law,” while taking a number of precautions. For example, the identification of bodies of those who have died from the coronavirus is made via photograph. Also, the ritual cleansing and preparation of the body for burial is done according to a special procedure at several centers around the country that have been set up for this.

In another change, the dead are now covered with a special wrapping over the shrouds, to prevent infection of the staff and the mourners. The burial society went to great effort to find a biodegradable wrapping that suits the dual imperatives of sealing the deceased to prevent transmission of the virus and adhering to the biblical dictum “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Knowing that the commandments regarding burial practices are still being followed is comforting for some, but Zoom can’t make up for the inability to mourn collectively. Netanel Lanzkron, a clinical psychologist in Tel Aviv, warns that the necessary restrictions on mourning practices could have psychological implications for the grieving families.

“There is no substitute for the human encounter. When you hold a funeral on Zoom and a shivah on WhatsApp, the mourning process is affected and something gets lost,” he says. “Without sitting shivah with friends and family, without embracing and crying together at the funeral – significant difficulties will arise in the psychological processing of the loss.”

Artist and former nurse Daniella Meller, who lost her friend Dalia Salmona of Be’er Sheva, knows what this feels like. “Everyone alone with their pain,” she wrote in a post describing the funeral.

“A small handful of people, with masks on their faces and gloves on their hands. Saying Kaddish. No hugs of condolence, of sharing the pain. One by one by one, keeping their distance, the people approach and cover the mound of soil with flowers. Everyone stands far apart. Each person alone with their tears dripping into their mask. Tears mustn’t mix in these terrible days of the coronavirus. A surreal funeral like something out of a nightmare.”

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