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The Pandemic’s Toll on the Dead

Around the world, COVID-19 upended Jewish burial rituals

by
Nomi Kaltmann
October 14, 2021
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
A family takes part in a remote shivaAndrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

According to Orthodox Judaism, burial should take place with minimal delay after someone dies—sometimes it is only hours after death before a body is buried and a funeral can take place. Between death and burial, a body is taken to a chevra kadisha, a Jewish burial society, where it is attended to by small groups of volunteers who complete tahara, the ancient Jewish practice of cleaning and purifying a body before burial.

During tahara, volunteers work in silence as they clean the body, attend to any wounds or cuts, and immerse the body in a mikvah before wrapping it in white burial shrouds known as tachrichim. These shrouds have no buttons or knots, which according to Orthodox belief will make it easier for the body to travel to Jerusalem when the Messiah arrives.

“A body is dipped three times in the mikvah in order to bring it back to its original holiness and purity,” said Nicole Herzog, a volunteer with the chevra kadisha in Melbourne, Australia, for over a decade. “We comb the hair and dress the body in seven white linen dresses—just like the kohen gadol [the high priest] wore on Yom Kippur, when he used to enter the Temple in all white.”

While tahara has been part of Jewish burial rituals for thousands of years, during the COVID-19 pandemic this ritual was upended as Jewish communities around the world struggled with the increased number of deceased—and the fear of infection and disease. There were two main areas of concern relating to tahara: the possible spread of COVID-19 from bodies during the cleansing process, with fear that the deceased could still be excreting infectious matter; and the possible spread among members of the chevra kadisha who work on cleansing the body in close quarters.

Around the world, chevra kadishas have been forced to make difficult decisions as the death tolls in global Jewish communities mounted.

“In Melbourne, Australia, we anticipated the worst. We bought loads of PPE, extra gowns, masks, and gloves, and we asked that only younger women come in to do tahara, as opposed to older women who were more at risk,” said Ruth Meyerowitz, the office manager of the Melbourne chevra kadisha. “We were lucky. Australia had strict lockdowns and closed its borders, so we ended up being largely unscathed by the global pandemic. With only a handful of deceased bodies being suspected of having COVID-19, the decision was made to complete a full tahara on these small number of deceased.”

According to Meyerowitz, even though the number of bodies was small, the chevra kadisha made plans in case things got worse: “We prepared in other ways,” she said. “We didn’t want to alarm the community, but we were scared that there would be an increase in deaths, so we ordered extra morgue refrigeration, extra tachrichim, and we increased the number of built coffins we had on hand, just in case we needed them.”

She added: “Thank God we didn’t need any of these things.”

Unlike Australia, however, the United States was hit very hard, with some American chevra kadishas noting that at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic they were burying more than 10 times the usual number of bodies.

In response to mounting health concerns, both from transmission from deceased bodies and between volunteers of the chevra kadisha, revered poskim—rabbis who are experts in Jewish law—including Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the leading scholar of Jewish law at Yeshiva University, released Halachic guidance noting that due to the severe risk of disease and death, at the peak of the pandemic tahara could be suspended. Many chevra kadishas suspended tahara for all bodies, not just COVID-19 cases. This was possible due to the determination that tahara was not a prerequisite for Orthodox Jewish burial (newer guidance has since been released advising that tahara can resume, with full PPE).

While some Orthodox communities both in the United States and around the world suspended tahara during 2020 and for some of 2021, many other Orthodox communities, especially Haredi communities, chose to continue with the practice, albeit with some precautions.

Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, who is the founder and president of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, released guidelines on tahara that met minimum Halachic requirements for a COVID-19-compliant burial. These guidelines offered important information for volunteers at chevra kadishas around the world, many of whom worked day and night to prepare bodies that were infected with COVID-19. Zohn’s guidelines included information advising that if tahara was undertaken, then the chevra kadisha must “strictly follow the general list of universal precautions recommended by the CDC” and “discard all unused supplies that were present at the tahara.”

The chevra kadisha in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was particularly hard hit, with the peak of the pandemic bringing a tenfold increase in bodies that needed to be prepared for burial.

“During COVID, if someone got sick, they went to the hospital, their families were unable to visit them, they died alone and then they couldn’t have proper funerals, minyanim, or shiva due to the pandemic,” said Rabbi Moishe Schmukler, a volunteer at the chevra kadisha in Crown Heights. “The deceased and families got nothing at all.”

The Crown Heights chevra kadisha continued to perform the full tahara burial rites on any deceased body that came through its doors, even at the height of the pandemic.

“We made sure all levayas [funerals] for people who died of COVID had at least a minyan. Some, their children were unable to travel to their funerals and the families endured very difficult circumstances,” said Schmukler. “The fact we were able to tell families: ‘Your loved one had a proper tahara before they were buried,’ provided many of them with some comfort. For most, the kaddish at the funeral was the only kaddish they said throughout the shiva and shloshim.”

According to Schmukler, “between kvuras [burials] and taharas we worked around the clock: Some chevra kadishas were working in three-hour shifts, a group of 10 volunteers in full PPE in order to complete the purification processes on bodies.” While the Crown Heights chevra kadisha did regular tahara with some extra precautions, he is aware of some chevra kadishas that followed the guidelines released by Zohn, which allowed them to perform a truncated version of the tahara, in what were still very difficult conditions. “In full PPE, you are schvitzing like crazy, in PPE your job becomes so much harder and exhausting, but there were so many bodies to prepare, we had no choice but to get through it,” Schmukler said.

As the pandemic moved from New York and hit other global Jewish communities, they, too, faced difficult decisions relating to performing the tahara rites on those who died of COVID-19.

Shirley Resnick has been a volunteer with the South African chevra kadisha for many years. “In Johannesburg, we try to bury people on the same day they pass away,” she said. “During COVID it was very scary, before the vaccine came out, we stopped all older persons from doing tahara and consulted widely with leading rabbis from all around the world regarding what we should do about tahara so we could make a decision. At the peak of the pandemic in South Africa, up to four times as many bodies were being buried per month due to the pandemic in Johannesburg alone.”

The South African Beth Din consulted with rabbis and poskim across the world and decided to suspend tahara on the grounds of safety.

With tahara now resuming in South Africa, new precautions have been enacted. “We work slower, everyone who does tahara must be vaccinated, and we take more time on the bodies, up to an hour to prepare them and we really try to avoid the splashing of mikvah water, even though we are all in full PPE,” Resnick said. “We don’t want COVID to be a reason to delay a levaya.”

Despite the hardship he went through during the peak of the pandemic, what sticks with Schmukler is the kindness of others who knew the toll the increased burials were having on the chevra kadisha in Crown Heights during those terrible days.

“One Sunday morning during the peak of the pandemic we had a funeral, and it was really bad,” he recalled. “All the shops were closed, and the gravediggers didn’t want to give us shovels to cover the graves because everyone was scared of COVID. In New York, the city was burying people who were not claimed and who had died of COVID in a mass grave on Hart Island. At the Crown Heights chevra kadisha, we had many bodies to bury, and we made a decision that we still wanted to bury them properly, with tahara, but we needed to find shovels to cover the grave ourselves. One man with a hardware store heard we needed supplies, so during those really scary days, when everyone was terrified and staying home and absolutely everything was shut, he opened his store. He let us in and told us to take what we needed for free, without the need to pay for anything, so that we could easily bury the deceased properly.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.

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