Ellen Chaikof
Ellen Chaikof
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COVID-19 funerals: The front-row seat I don’t want

Back then, my community sustained me through losses; now, I can't be present to hug a friend or pass a tissue to someone sobbing behind me
A woman sits before a laptop, looking distressed. (iStock)
A woman sits before a laptop, looking distressed. (iStock)

I am just about to watch a Zoom funeral, perhaps the 10th one I’ve tuned into since COVID began. I guess I’m of a certain age; many of my friends’ parents have died in the last four or five months.

Out of respect, I put on some nicer clothes even though I grasp just how ludicrous that is. No one can see me. I settle into a comfortable chair, make a cup of tea and click on the Zoom link.

First, the upside of a Zoom funeral — I don’t have to get in the car, drive to the funeral chapel, drive in the processional to the cemetery, and then stand shivering on the grass or snow, nervously looking down to make sure I’m not standing on someone else’s grave. On my computer, I can see the mourners up close and clearly hear every word they are saying. It’s like having a front-row seat.

The only thing is, I don’t want to be comfortable. And I don’t want a front-row seat. Instead of feeling like a voyeur, I want to actually be a participant. I want to honor the memories of those precious souls we have lost, and envelop my friends in comforting hugs. I want to pass a Kleenex to a quietly whimpering stranger beside me. I want to feel that hard, splintery shovel in my hand and know that I am performing what Judaism calls “chesed shel emet” — the ultimate mitzvah for which there is no thanks or reward.

When my mother died, it was quite sudden, after a very short illness. Although I was still reeling from the shock of it all, I do remember most of the funeral. A friend tried to prepare me for the hardest part, when they lower the casket into the ground. “Don’t look down” she advised, “look up towards the sky, for that is where your mother’s soul is headed.” A nice thought, certainly, but what I actually did was look around me at my community, at the people who were there to support my brother and our families. As I tried desperately not to listen to the sound of the hard black earth hitting the coffin, my eyes locked with the eyes of my childhood next-door neighbor who was standing 20 feet away, on the other side of the grave. Our mothers had been the closest of friends; in some ways, Mark and I felt that we each had two mothers. His mother had died two years earlier, and that day in the cemetery, I saw all of my own pain reflected in his eyes. No words were required — our connection was visceral and overwhelmingly powerful.

Today’s funerals are a more solitary affair, and our capacity to connect with our community and feel supported in our grief severely limited. At COVID-19 funerals in our province, there are limits on the number of attendees; 10 people maximum, including the rabbi. At a time when fault lines in some families are already in danger of being exposed and ruptured, how terrible it must be to decide which family members are allowed to attend.

Each of the funerals I watched in the time of COVID-19 was men in their 90s, who led full lives and had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Several were Holocaust survivors — remarkable men who lived through unspeakable horrors but emerged from the ashes to build families and leave enduring legacies. I can’t help but be saddened by thinking that they deserved much bigger send-offs — hundreds of mourners gathering to pay their respects, all listening to well- deserved tributes from clergy and family

So many life-cycle events have been postponed or canceled in the last year — weddings, b’nai mitzvot, graduations. As a regular shul-goer, I desperately miss being in a sacred space every Shabbat, sitting next to my close friend in companionable (mostly) silence. It’s all very sad, but, of course, we have accepted and adapted because nothing is more important than the sanctity of life and keeping each other safe. And as Jews, we intuitively know that it could always be worse. We have a roof over our heads, food to eat and we will get through this. But COVID funerals? That’s a tragedy that I will not soon get over.

About the Author
Ellen lives in Toronto and New York with her husband David, and is the mother of three sons. A lawyer by training, she now spends time volunteering in the community and writing.
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