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Religious funeral customs are adapting to COVID-19

By Connie Cone Sexton
Religious services - like most other public events - have been severely constrained by the Covid pandemic H. Andrii, Getty Images

COVID-19 has disrupted everyday life, changing how people socialize, shop, work -- and worship. Health laws and pandemic restrictions can make it challenging to honor a particular religion’s death practices.

Some religions allow followers to tend to the body through cleansing or putting on clothes. Some religions might encourage the laying on of hands. But such intimate activities could put mourners in jeopardy, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

It can all be overwhelming for some people, says the Rev. Brandon Brewer, director of patient experience at Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care just outside of Chicago.

A person’s religion is often a key part of their identify, he notes: “This is who I am. This is what I want to do to express my faith, my spirituality. I have to maintain these rituals and traditions because it’s who I am. But these new rules keep people from doing that.”

Religious leaders are working to help people cope and perhaps are modifying how rituals can still be followed.

For example, some Catholic leaders have turned to online streaming of services. Worshipers may not get to attend in person, but can still participate in certain practices, like taking the Eucharist of bread and wine to represent Christ’s body and blood -- just at home.

Rabbi Michael Ross at Temple Beth Shalom just outside of Cleveland has begun to shift funeral rites online.

“I have now done two Zoom funerals," he says. "They are different and meaningful and weird.”

Family members may not all be in the same room, but the chance to tell stories of the loved one is still there. The survivors still get to spend time together, albeit from a distance or virtually.

One of the most-difficult rituals to transition is the Jewish tradition of holding shiva, a seven-day period of mourning after death. Typically, family members gather while friends and other loved ones visit, offer condolences and share stories.

To maintain safety, some families have had catered meals brought in, to keep from having guests drop by, Ross says. Some families also have decided not to have a quorum of 10 adult Jews holding prayer services. And instead of being inside, some families have held Shiva in the backyard.

For some, the mourning experience has been difficult. “It just hasn’t been the same, emotionally,” Ross says. “There is a loss. Many families find deep consolation when they can be with their community and friends.”

To be safe during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control suggests people may want to consider the following changes to traditional rituals or other funeral practices:

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