I have officiated at funerals for 16 years in my community of West Bloomfield, Michigan. As a busy working mother, I am loving and patient, organized and a wizard at time management. As a rabbi, I am serious, focused and available to families around the clock. Real life doesn’t have office hours. Hospice work is my niche, so I spend a lot of time with grieving families. Usually I am the calm presence in the room, the one who isn’t shaking.
Not now. This time, I was all by myself, in my home office, a wreck.
A kind and gentle 70-year-old man named Saul had passed away. He had been in a rehab facility working on walking and building back his strength after a long stint in the hospital. He was optimistic about his recovery. When I visited with him, he always told me he couldn’t wait to get back home.
Then COVID-19 came. It swept through the halls of the rehab facility like the angel of death. Saul, working so hard to recover, got sick, and he wasn’t strong enough to fight off the coronavirus.
Saul’s family chose an online service rather than gathering at the cemetery for a few reasons. First, they feared the coronavirus. Second, it allowed more people to attend. The Michigan Board of Rabbis had agreed that we should follow federal guidelines, as well as our own governor’s orders, and that meant services were graveside only, with fewer than 10 people allowed to attend.
As clergy, I felt gutted that we could not perform so many of the rituals that Judaism prescribes for mourning. When a loved one dies, we tear our clothes or wear a torn black ribbon for the seven days following a death, the period of shiva. Before coronavirus, I would stand in front of a mourner, pin the little ribbon onto their clothes, walk them through the prayer that is recited and give them a hug. Now I couldn’t even come within arm’s length and had to walk mourners through the ritual from at least 6 feet away.
My instinct is to reach out and hold someone’s hand or embrace them, an unconscious rabbinic reflex to offer physical as well as spiritual comfort. Now I found myself recoiling, slightly embarrassed that I’d so easily forgotten about social distancing rules.
Our tradition usually provides space for friends and family to greet mourners before the services. People form a line and wait quietly to offer their condolences. This sacred offering is impossible now, so mourners are left to look at each other, perhaps put their hands on their hearts in a gesture of mutual love.
At an e-funeral, so many elements would be out of my control. What if I froze ― literally or figuratively? What if one of my children knocked on the door to my workspace, crying? What if the attendees accidentally unmuted themselves? There is one thing that all rabbis want when they are officiating at an event: control.
It isn’t about being a control freak, it is about my role as comforter in chief. My role is to make the service as meaningful as possible, and as stress-free as possible, using the traditional words and customs that are soothing for the soul. I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide cyber-comfort.
About an hour before the service was set to begin, I changed out of my quarantine uniform of sweats and a hoodie and into nicer yoga pants and a black sweater. They’d only see me from the chest up anyway, so why not stay comfortable? I put on some makeup and set out to arrange my “pulpit.” I piled up a bunch of books and set my computer on top. I nervously tinkered with the lighting for half an hour.
Pre-pandemic, I was a happy Luddite. I still write by hand when talking to families about a eulogy. Now I was responsible for one of the most sacred moments in a person’s lifecycle, and I had to hand over my control to my laptop.
Luckily, my colleague agreed to be on Zoom with me to troubleshoot. I made sure Saul’s family could see me and hear me. I closed the office doors behind me and welcomed everyone to the service.
“My instinct is to reach out and hold someone’s hand or embrace them, an unconscious rabbinic reflex to offer physical as well as spiritual comfort. Now I found myself recoiling, slightly embarrassed that I’d so easily forgotten about social distancing rules.”
There were over 100 video squares populating the service ― hundreds of people joining Saul’s family to say goodbye. People were quiet as they entered, even when not on mute. The family sent me a thank you text before we even began.
What I feared would be a more terrible version of a board meeting morphed into a surprisingly intimate service. The mourners could see my face clearly, and I was looking directly at theirs. There might have been a screen between us, but somehow that didn’t matter. Saul’s 45-year-old daughter gave me a reassuring smile, and I relaxed.
I recited the familiar words of Psalm 23 in Hebrew and English, and it helped me remember that I had been shepherding families through the valley for nearly two decades, and I would do the same for Saul’s family. In my home office. Wearing yoga pants.
Officiating at my first computerized funeral, I realized just how much comfort can be expressed through words and eyes. Long-distance friends and family were brought close in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without this technology. A cantor from my congregation was able to join me, and his singing rounded out the liturgy perfectly. Every ritual performed, every prayer spoken or sung, I pray, carried Saul’s soul to its final resting place.
And similarly, I imagined that those same words and melodies helped carry the souls of the mourners to a place of comfort and peace. Going forward, I feel confident knowing that although physical presence and affection are integral to human connection, love and concern will make themselves known regardless of the medium.