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Lessons from the cemetery, 2020

Our memories of our loved ones will outlast the raw paucity of funeral ritual that COVID-19 has rendered necessary
US gravediggers carry the casket of someone presumed to have died from coronavirus as they are buried without any family present at Mount Richmond Cemetery in the Staten Island borough of New York, April 7, 2020. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
US gravediggers carry the casket of someone presumed to have died from coronavirus as they are buried without any family present at Mount Richmond Cemetery in the Staten Island borough of New York, April 7, 2020. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

We met outside the cemetery at 1:45 p.m., unable to enter because the gates were locked. Masked and gloved, we then followed the hearse and waited in our cars as the crew processed the coffin to the grave, lowered it and used a backhoe to cover and close.  At 2:15 p.m., we five stood at what had been the open grave 10 minutes earlier. We had to leave the cemetery grounds by 2:35.

Such is the procedure at this Jewish cemetery in Clifton, New Jersey.

On Staten Island, I was at one of the cemeteries welcoming “clients” from the Free Burial Association. I saw row upon row of newly dug graves ready to receive their burdens, and rows of recently filled-in graves with temporary markers for those they had accepted.

In Queens, I found a bit of luck, for the bathrooms were outside the closed administration building and were open for business. We waited for over an hour as the only crew tirelessly took one procession after another to the waiting graves.

And in Woodbridge, New Jersey, the overworked foreman and crew were empathic and apologetic that they could not do more for us six who waited our turn to bury a loved one.

Such is the new reality of funerals in our COVID-19 universe.

Sometimes we are able to “zoom” in relatives from other parts of the world, but mostly it’s just the funeral director, between two and eight mourners, and me standing with proper social distance and talking through our masks.

The cemeteries rarely provide shovels. And as the graves are usually filled before we approach, placing dirt on the grave seems futile.

Almost all of the funerals where I’ve officiated are of the elderly, aged 80 and above. They died either from Corona or from the lack of attention they received because of their isolation and an overwhelmed health care system.

I find myself thankful that I am a member of the “orphans club,” for if my parents were alive, I am convinced they would not be much longer.

And if you are thinking of cremation — there is a long wait.

There are frequent disconnected moments when I feel I’m living in an episode of Twilight Zone. On my way to Eastern Long Island, I passed through Manhattan. My Google map insisted that for once this shortest route was also the fastest. I exited the Lincoln Tunnel and entered the Midtown Tunnel (my apologies to the world outside of NYC) in 11 minutes — an obstacle course that would usually take five times as long.

There is no traffic on what are normally congested interstates. There are no pedestrians in the towns I pass through. The only common factors are the sad eyes above the masks of those of us who gather at the graves to pay some respect to those for whom the virus had none.

I note that we seem to be bifurcating: some assert that we are slowly (or not so slowly) moving toward a long cultural and political winter, and others who refuse despair and believe that we will rise from the corona-induced ashes as a stronger and more resilient community.

I cannot subscribe to either point of view. We will emerge changed and yet not so changed. New cultural norms will be embraced or accepted and our lives will continue.

Whether these changes are for the good will depend on us. Will we insist on better health and cooperation and fight for these values, or will we sink into complacency and relief?

At the beginning of each funeral, I say, “This is not the way things are supposed to be. But we have before us a choice: we can accept what is and decide to remember the positive memories that will outlast the raw paucity of ritual afforded us in this cemetery.

“We can remember that what really matters is the loss of our loved one and not the loss of our ability to congregate to bury them. We can use this experience to become better people as we bid goodbye to what was.”

And hope that by 2:30 p.m., we emerge from the cemetery better for it.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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