Kaddish and Corona: Personal Reflections on Mourning During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Having lost close relatives in the past, I was pretty familiar with the Jewish mourning routine. Saying goodbye. Tearing the clothing. Funeral. Burial. Shiva. Kaddish. But when my father passed away at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, I found myself navigating completely new terrain where none of the rules of my prior experience applied. Proper ritual and practice, as passed down to us for generations, were replaced with my two new directives: Do the best you can. Something is better than nothing. And, I learned a thing or two along the way.
Bidding farewell and vidduy
Any rabbi will tell one with a gravely ill relative that it is important to spend time with your loved one when they near death. The time together at the end, whether through parting words or just by being in each other’s presence, brings spiritual benefit to the departed and emotional closure to the bereaved. Indeed, our sages teach that a person should not be left alone as the soul departs from the body. At this period of transition between the worlds, Jewish tradition is that the dying person—or, more often, the close relatives or rabbi on his behalf—recite the vidduyprayer, a final opportunity to ask for forgiveness and affirm one’s faith.
In my past experiences, my relatives had passed quickly without the opportunity for vidduyor appropriate goodbyes. So I had long ago committed that, when my father’s time came, I would get it right. Enter COVID-19. As my father lay in the hospital, his condition worsening each day, no family members were permitted to enter the building for fear of passing the virus to patients or staff. At the very beginning, we were able to briefly talk on the phone—“how are you feeling?”, “did they do the procedure?”, “we’re all thinking of you”, “you’ll get out of there soon”—but as he deteriorated and the hospital staff operated in crisis mode, communication became extremely limited. Very difficult to bear. A couple of times, a kind doctor or aide utilized the modern miracle of video chat to allow us to exchange a quick word of encouragement, but it was highly inadequate and there was certainly no good way to say goodbye.
Faced with real possibility that my father would die alone—exactly not the way the way it was “supposed” to be– I needed to find a way to at least say the vidduywith him. I simply could not blow this again. “I am really sorry to bother you”, I said to an unnamed ICU doctor on the other end of the telephone. “Since no relatives are allowed in the hospital, could I possibly impose upon you to put a phone by my father’s ear so that I can recite a final prayer with my father? I understand you are extremely busy saving lives, and I will keep it very short.” The doctor agreed to take a cordless phone to my father’s bedside, and I was relieved to be able to fulfill this years-old commitment. I knew that this was still not going to be the right goodbye for me or my father, but it was the best I could do. With limited time, I got straight to the point. I said to my unconscious parent, “The doctors are working hard to get you better, and we look forward to seeing you soon. But just in case, we are going to say a vidduytogether now….”
I did the best I could. My father began his new journey the next day.
Funeral and Burial
Depending on the family’s location, affiliation, and the size of the crowd, Jewish funerals are typically held in funeral parlors or synagogues. In most cases, there is a conventional, predictable procedure: the casket sits at the front of the room; the friends and family respectfully file into the pews to honor the departed, with special spots reserved for the mourners at the front; close relatives and friends are called to the podium to recite apropos Psalms; the rabbi and others offer eulogies; a memorial prayer is recited; adult grandsons or nephews are honored with carrying the casket to the hearse, followed closely by the mourners, and then followed by the rest of the congregation, honoring the departed by figuratively accompanying him to his resting place while reciting Psalm 91.
As we are blessed with a large extended family and many friends, as my father aged, I imagined his funeral, after “a hundred and twenty”, with an overflow crowd in a large synagogue, where I would be comforted by the presence of the many people on whom my father left a lasting influence and the moving, extensive eulogies presented by rabbis and family. But not during COVID. The representative of the Jewish burial society, the chevra kadisha, explained to me over the phone that local regulations and cemetery rules would not allow us to have a funeral in any enclosed building. Just eight people standing at a graveside, with a few others in nearby cars. Digesting his words, I pointed out to the man that normally the mourners stand on the side while the adult relatives carry the casket to the grave. With three mourners, two of whom were women, eight people would not be enough. The man gently said to me, “this is not normally. You just have to do the best you can.” So me, my three teenage sons, a brother-in-law and a nephew carried my father ourselves from the hearse to the gravesite, reciting by heart Psalm 91 to the best of our ability. We had no rabbi or other officiant, but I had my rabbi’s lifecycle guidebook, the madrich. Without much time to prepare, I did my best to recite the designated prayers in the proper way, lend order, formality and solemnity to a chaotic, informal event, and deliver a brief eulogy. And then—without any other family or friends–my sons, brother-in-law, nephew and I, lowered the casket into the grave by ourselves, with a few tips from a grave digger and hearse driver, and filled the grave with earth. Not what we would ever have imagined, but I think my father would have been proud that we did our best. In a beautiful twist, the crazy circumstances allowed us to personally—with our own hands and sweat—honor our father and grandfather in a way we never would have been able to in normaltimes.
Though the phenomenon of video chat did not help my father much when he needed us in the hospital, it did allow close friends and family to participate virtually and made us feel that we were not honoring our father alone. When it came time for the burial kaddish, a few of the men in nearby cars rolled down their windows to “make the minyan”. My brother, who was unable to travel from his home in Israel to join us, gathered a separate, distanced minyan to stand within earshot of him, and my brother and I, through the phone but each with his respective minyan, recited the burial kaddish together.
Normally, following the ancient tradition of shura, the mourners depart the gravesite by walking between two parallel rows of family and friends who shower them with the traditional formula of consolation, praying that they be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. As the service ended, I noticed that the cars of the few attendees were lined up in two parallel rows. Following the theme of doing the best you can, we decided to walk between the two short rows of cars, as family in the cars wished us consolation from behind their windshields. Something is better than nothing.
The powerful tradition of shiva—the seven days that combine intense mourning with consolation by friends, family and wonderful memories—is a crucial step in the grieving process and the transition back to regular life. But the prospect of shiva during COVID was truly depressing. Sitting alone at home without any friends and extended family to share memories felt like it was going to be neither meaningful nor therapeutic. I had heard that shiva visits through Zoom technology could mitigate the miserable circumstances, but I did not know what to expect.
It turned out to be a lot better than nothing and even offered some surprising extra benefits. Not only was I able to “sit” together with my siblings, while each of us remained in our own homes and countries, many friends and family members joined our screen to offer their condolences, memories and some stories about my father that we never knew. We had the opportunity to emote and educate our “visitors” about my father’s extraordinary life and accomplishments, and felt consoled by their virtual presence. Unexpectedly, the Zoom format allowed us to connect with relatives and old friends in faraway places who never would have been able to join us in a normalshiva.
For the year of mourning, the most constant ritual, ideally three times a day, is reciting the kaddish prayer in a synagogue. Although the source and reason for kaddish is discussed and debated, the centrality of the regular recitation of kaddish is universally accepted. So much so that it has made its way into popular movies and television.
But during the height of COVID, there was no public prayer, and there can be no kaddish in private. It requires the quorum of the minyan. We were lucky enough to join ten men together at the funeral, but that could not be done on a daily basis while people were sequestered in their homes. “How can you mourn without kaddish?”, I wondered. “In the absence of my kaddish, who will lift my father’s soul to the highest place in heaven?” I thought to myself, “what would my father have said in this situation?” The answer was immediately clear. He would have instructed us that under normalcircumstances, you should be careful to say kaddish every day. And if you can’t, you don’t.
Through my experience, I learned that, when preformed with sincerity and effort, our powerful rituals can be extremely meaningful even in the most adverse circumstances. I also learned how lucky I was. Despite the unexpectedly challenging situation, my spur-of-the-moment, do-your-best effort to maintain our rituals resulted in the ability to take leave of my father with emotion and prayer, honor his body and soul, share my feelings and memories with friends and family, and carry his legacy into my continuing life. A whole lot better than nothing.
I was reminded that, as a Jew, I must approach my circumstances as they are and make the most I can of them, whatever comes my way. Yes, we have rules and traditions to which we must carefully adhere, sometimes at great sacrifice. But Jewish law and tradition is not an old, musty list of do’s and don’ts. Our Torah is living, real and present, and it speaks to us no matter the circumstances.
Written by Avi Morell, July 2020