life after life

Our Way of Holding You

A Brooklyn rabbi on what it’s like to officiate a funeral over Zoom.

Photo: saulgranda/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York (where I am a member), performed her first virtual burial service. A member of her congregation had died at home of COVID-19, and because they were quarantined, his immediate family members — his wife and their two adult sons — were not able to travel to the cemetery. So Timoner went to the graveside and officiated the burial service by herself. The deceased’s brother and sister-in-law were there, but 20 feet away, and the rest of the family watched over Zoom. “I was extremely moved that Rachel was willing to do this,” the widow told me. “She kind of tried to make it like I was there. I think she knew that I was very troubled by not being able to be there.” The burial service was “extremely painful,” the widow said — “excruciating” — but not because it was conducted on Zoom. “There wasn’t the kind of good-bye I wanted, in terms of holding him. But that’s not Zoom’s fault. I’m glad it existed.”

Says Timoner: “To resist the human impulse to care — to physically care —it’s torture.” Here are the rabbi’s reflections on absurdity, horror, and trauma in this moment.

The cruelty of the death and dying process is like nothing I’ve ever seen. As human beings, we need to hold the people we love, and we need to be held by them and we need touch when we are suffering. To not be able to hold the person you love, either before the death or after, is not okay. It’s not humane. And I’m seeing that happening to a lot of people.

Early on, when we were looking at the data from Italy and China, I did the math. We are a congregation of a thousand families, so it would be 45 members. We usually lose between zero and five members in a year. So far it has been nowhere near those numbers. At all.

When I was making those estimates, I was just thinking about volume and now I’m like, Oh, one member died this week. One. But [burying him] was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever done.

The guidance has been constantly changing. At first we were allowed by the cemeteries to have up to ten people at the grave site. Everyone had to be ten feet apart from each other, everyone had to wear masks and gloves.

More recently, though, the New York Board of Rabbis came out with different guidance, saying clergy should not attend burials at all. Family should go to the cemetery, and clergy should be there to officiate virtually. But because this member died at home, his wife and his adult sons who were staying with them were quarantined and could not leave the house. And so I was like, I’m breaking the rules. I’m going. His brother wanted to go, too, and I was like, I’ll stand far away. I was about 20 feet away from him the whole time. I was aware in the process that I was experiencing trauma. For sure the family was, but I also was myself.

I was a filmmaker while I was burying him. I was holding my phone, trying to get the right angle, so his family at home could see what was happening. I kept asking them, “Can you see? Is this what you want to be seeing?” I was in the car, behind the hearse, and I’m driving, but I put my phone right above the steering wheel so they could see the back of the hearse as they would if they were there. So we arrived at the cemetery, and they’d never seen it, and I knew [the widow] had concerns about what it was like, so I was showing her the trees, and the grass, and saying, “Do you see? It’s beautiful here.”

According to the new rules, you can’t get out of the car while the cemetery staff takes the casket out and buries it. You have to stay in your car until they have lowered the casket. You can’t even walk up. But I got out of my car, and the funeral director said, “Stay here, stay right by your car.” So I’m far away, and the staff — the grave diggers — are masked and gloved, and I’m showing the family with my phone as they bring the casket to the grave and start lowering it. That’s always a process, even when this is not happening.

It’s hard to see your loved one is in this box, and they are jostling it, and trying to have it fit in the grave, and they have these straps and they’re trying to lower it. When they’re done, they walk far away, and there’s nobody there. So then I approach — his brother is far behind me, he stands far away — and I’m thinking, What would the family do if they were here? They’d look in the grave. So I take the phone and started showing the edge of the grave and then the casket from above.

The whole time I’m wearing my mask, also of course my kippa. In one hand, I’ve got the phone. In my other hand, I’ve got the prayers. At the grave there’s not a lot of prayers that you do anyway, and I just did the minimum. I spoke to them a little bit, and I did a reading. And then I said, “It’s time for us to place earth in the grave.” The guidance from the board was there were to be no shovels at the graveside, because sharing the shovel isn’t safe. [In Judaism, it’s traditional for the mourners to pass around a shovel and in turn move dirt into the grave.] But for some reason there was a shovel, and I said to the brother, “You definitely get to use it.” And I’m showing the family the earth hitting the grave and you can hear it. It’s terrible. And then I showed them me taking handfuls and putting them in — one hand showing the other hand putting the earth in. Then we say Kaddish.

There are things about this that are so absurd. I have the words to Kaddish on the page of the prayer book, but they didn’t have the prayer and I couldn’t hold the phone and the page, so I was like, “Google it.” They’re on their computers at home Googling mourner’s Kaddish. The brother was weeping; his wife was holding him. We never came near each other, and we got in our cars and we drove away.

And then — this is neither here nor there — but my hands are caked in dirt. In Judaism, you’re supposed to wash your hands at the edge of the cemetery. You’re supposed to ritually cleanse yourself, and there’s always a spigot at the cemetery exit. But now everything was closed. The bathroom was closed, and the spigot was closed. So I’ve got hand sanitizer in my car, and I squeeze it on my hands, and they’re dripping sanitizer and dirt. It felt somehow very symbolic to me.

The shiva happened by Zoom later that day. It’s amazing to see everybody. And you’re surprised how much you feel connected even though you’re not near each other. I’ve done five of these now, and they are starting to resemble funeral services, because people can’t gather for funerals. I always open by saying, “If we could we would be with you. We would be encircling you. We would be holding you. That’s where we want to be and we can’t, so this is our way of holding you.” Then, as in a funeral, I have a list of speakers, and one at a time they speak, and their little box lights up yellow.

Geography is not a problem anymore, and that’s an amazing thing. So all these funerals and all these shivas, I’ve got people from all over the country who wouldn’t fly in for the funeral, normally, but now can be there. There’s an equalization that’s happening now. Our homebound people, our elderly people are now the same as us. For me, it feels like such a big deal for them. There will be loss, I think, when we’re back together and they’re on the outside again.

This has been edited and condensed for clarity.