As the UK Government has slowly begun to relax guidelines relating to Covid-19, so too have various organisations begun relaxing the most stringent regulations preventing mourners from being present for cremations or burials. As of this past week (1.6.20) the Movement for Reform Judaism in the UK along with the Joint Jewish Burial Society and the Assembly of Reform Rabbis in the UK have all voted to transition away from a strict “no mourner” policy to a slightly relaxed policy of a small amount of mourners made up of immediately family. In accordance with this and the Leeds City Council number of 10 mourners allowed at funerals, Sinai will as well relax our guidelines, but with strict options and conditions.

(Personal note from the Rabbi: Telling mourners that they could not attend the funeral of a loved one has been one of the singular most difficult tasks I, and many of my colleagues, have had as a rabbi. It has not been without controversy but has been undertaken as such under the belief that the principle of pekuach nefesh is not arbitrary, and that the dangers are real, especially as they are invisible and lack the ominousness of other dangers and may therefore not be taken as seriously. Even with the relaxing of guidelines I still believe that there is a real danger that allowing mourners at a grave site will exacerbate. The language of this document is terse and direct, and may be difficult to read, especially if one is reading this in a state of mourning. The purpose, however, is to continue to impress upon us the primacy of “saving a life” in our tradition in the face of something that can indeed take a life.)

The new policy as of the date of this document will be to offer mourners one of two choices, with a third possibility under extraordinary circumstances.

  • A Zoom burial with NO mourners as has been done since the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown.
  • A burial with 8 maximum mourners, with strict conditions including universal facemasks and a social distancing monitor, and no Zoom (unless the family is willing to independently administer and run the zoom themselves).
  • In the event that there is only one (or two) mourners that can attend, Zoom will still be offered as an option to allow for a minyan.

Caution and Challenges:

It is completely acknowledged that a funeral is the last moment that we want (or even have the capacity) to need to adhere to strict guidelines. Please, however, consider the following:

  • Other than more clear scientific information that Covid-19 is more difficult (but not impossible) to catch outdoors than indoors, the nature of the disease is no different today than at the beginning of lockdown, and there is currently no treatment that ensures survival, widely available serum testing (nor science to back up whether or not previous exposure confers immunity), nor a vaccine. Choosing to stay home when you show symptoms ignores the single most important element of the SARS-COV-2 virus, that it is transmitted mainly by asymptomatic
  • The City Council Guidelines no longer restrict age, even though older members of our community remain the most vulnerable.
  • Based on personal experience and the experience of colleagues, if the door is open for people to come to a funeral, they will, even if they should not.
  • It is not reasonable for an officiant to both lead a service with in-person mourners while simultaneously using Zoom as a platform.
  • An officiant has a different level of choice at attending a funeral than a mourner (i.e. a mourner can choose out of concerns for health and safety to not attend, whereas that is not possible in the same way for the rabbi/cantor/lay leader)
  • The nature of mourning and funerals makes social distancing less likely even if it is intended.
  • There is a high probability that following City Council Guidelines will place the officiant at funerals either in a position to police social distancing (something neither practical nor socially possible for most officiants) or without other ways of maintaining higher levels of safety will simply place an undue risk on the health (or life) of the officiant.
  • So that the numbers are fully understood and why strict adherence to the guidelines listed below is essential, 10 people allowed does not mean only 10 will be present. Present at a funeral with 10 mourners are as well an undertaker, 3 to 4 assistants, 1-2 workers from the cemetery staff, the officiant and the city council representative, meaning around eighteen people. It is critical to understand that there is simply no practical social distancing with that many people and therefore the number of limitations simply cannot be safely raised.

Option Details:

Option 1: Status Quo—Zoom-only Funeral with no mourners present

One of the biggest challenges of the opening of guidelines is that the strict policy of no mourners protected not only each other, but us from ourselves. There have been clear and consistent stories from within the Jewish world including in the UK of people that even had Covid-19 symptoms who attended funerals because the religious and sociological pressures that exist within us are stronger than an invisible and silent possibility. If you are yourself sick or vulnerable, or if the family that would feel obligated to come would risk themselves against their better judgement, we implore you to choose to have a no-mourner funeral, and then at a future time (such as the monument unveiling) choose to come together to commemorate with no possibility of putting another at risk. (Please refer to https://sinaileeds.uk/funerals for the document describing the current Zoom funeral process.)

Option 2: Limited Mourners with Strict Guidelines and no Zoom (unless administered independently by the family.)

If the option for “mourners present” is chosen, the following guidelines will need to be strictly enforced to acknowledge the danger to those that choose to come and are vulnerable, or those that are required to be there and cannot therefor choose to isolate in safety.

  • An absolute maximum of 8 mourners may be present. No exceptions. (The officiant and a Sinai safety monitor, described below, will complete the minyan.)
  • All present, including family, officiant, security official and undertaker along with staff will be required to wear a facemask from before the arrival to the gravesite until after the conclusion of the funeral and the departure of the officiant and undertaker's staff.
  • Mourners should be limited to immediate family, and only extended to near family or close friends if they are needed to complete the 8 for the sake of a minyan.
  • The mourners must agree to a safety and social distancing monitor from among Sinai leadership to be present at the funeral. Although the concepts of social distancing seem simple and obvious, they require focus and intentionality, which are both nearly impossible while participating in ritual, especially while mourning. The officiant is neither socially nor practically able to ask mourners present to please stand farther away or to please wear a facemask, as well as to enforce these guidelines if mourners choose not to follow them.
  • Our undertaker supplies a shovel for the purpose of adding earth to the grave. If a mourner intends on participating in this ritual, they will be required either to wear gloves or to bring their own shovel. (Because of conflicting medical information regarding the efficacy of gloves, either your own shovel or the additional use of hand sanitizer is recommended.)
  • A water basin will not be provided for washing up after a funeral. Please ensure that you have brought your own water if you choose to observe this part of the ritual.
  • All mourners will be asked to stand in a specific location away from the grave while the officiant is leading ritual, and will be asked to only approach the grave when the officiant steps back from the grave.

Option 3: Single Mourner

In the case that there is a single or at the very most two mourners and not enough close or local relatives to make eight, a hybrid will be allowed. This will be considered and will be administered as a Zoom funeral with no mourners, following all the guidelines of such a funeral, but in this case the mourner will be able to be present at the gravesite during the ritual.

For Cremations:

The options will remain identical to those above. The logistics, however, will be different and will be spoken of individually with the families of the mourners.

Conclusion:

This document will continue to be updated as national and organisational guidelines change in addition to any new information regarding the nature and potential treatments for Covid-19. This is a time when we are all looking for comfort, and a document such as this provides little comfort other than the possibility of choice where there was recently no choice. Judaism has always balanced multiple truths within its debates, and good people will disagree on our priorities and options at this time. At Sinai, we will always strive even within limitations to honour life while creating the most meaningful ritual possible given the circumstances.