Coronavirus: Funerals and shiva move online

People throughout the world are filming funeral services and broadcasting them to family members and friends near and far.

Funerals, which have been restricted to just first-degree relatives, are now taking place with participants joining through video links. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Funerals, which have been restricted to just first-degree relatives, are now taking place with participants joining through video links.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
These days, in the midst of the corona pandemic, almost everything we used to do in person is being done virtually through live video. What used to be the purview of business meetings for connecting global partners, has now become the same technology used for holding online birthday parties, Seder nights, Pilates classes and morning minyanim [prayer quorums].
But virtual cyberspace is not just used for work or happy family occasions. Funerals too, which have been restricted to just first-degree relatives, are now taking place with participants joining through video links. This isn’t just happening in Israel. People throughout the world are filming funeral services and broadcasting them to family members and friends near and far.
“My father, Yefet Fadel, passed away on April 3 at the age of 80,” said Yigal Fadel sadly.
“We spoke with the Hevra Kadisha [burial society], and they told us we need to check with the Health Ministry regarding the new restrictions. We were told that we could only have 20 people at the funeral, including the professionals dealing with the burial. These 20 people would have to be split into two groups, and stand far apart from one another. We have such a large family and so many friends, and my father was very generous with his time in the community. It was so hard to tell everyone they couldn’t come to the funeral. Deciding which people to include in the group of 20 was extremely difficult. The people who helped us deal with all the funeral details are real tzadikim [righteous people].”
Despite the restrictions, Fadel wanted as many people as possible to be able to offer their last respects to his father. Through a friend he heard about Mima’amakim, a program that was established in memory of Udi Algerabli, who fell in Lebanon in 1994.
The program offers support to families who have lost loved ones. During the current pandemic, Mima’amakim is broadcasting funerals and shiva (mourning) gatherings free of charge.
“They sent me a link,” Fadel said, “and I downloaded the software. Then I sent the link to our family and friends so they could watch the funeral live. My son filmed the funeral on his phone, which enabled hundreds of people to participate.”
Was this helpful?
“Yes, it helped relieve a lot of the pain I was feeling,” continues Fadel. “I wanted to honor all the people who wanted to honor my father. It wasn’t the same as if everyone had been able to come in person, but it was still something. In normal times, I think thousands of people would have come to pay their respects. As soon as the funeral was over, we called the Health Ministry back and asked them what the regulations were for holding a shiva.
“They told us that each of the siblings needs to sit shiva alone in her or his own house, and especially my mother, since she is older and therefore much more at risk. The woman from the Health Ministry was crying right along with me on the phone. This isn’t easy for any of the people involved. So we opened up a virtual shiva room, and I sent the link to all my family members, and asked them to send it out to everyone else.”
How does a virtual shiva room work?
“All of the people sitting shiva appear together on the screen, and then anytime someone wanted to join, they just press on the link. We would talk with them online and tell stories about my dad, and upload pictures. This is the best way to keep everyone safe and follow regulations during a shiva.
“One way to make sure that there aren’t too many people on the site at the same time is to set appointments for various groups. For example, I set a specific time for all my work colleagues to join me. In the past, at the shiva you spend all day with your family, and get hugs and touch people constantly. In a virtual shiva, you don’t have any of this. But at least it offered people an opportunity to honor my father. Avi Schweka, from Mima’amakim helped us navigate the software, and was very sympathetic and sensitive to our needs. We really appreciated this help.”
One issue that was a little too complicated to deal with online was saying kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.
“Since we needed a minyan,” Fadel explained, “we asked men who live next door to join us with their sons who are over bar-mitzvah age for the prayer service from their balconies. This is how we gathered a minyan for saying kaddish.”
“We began brainstorming ideas last year, and founded Mima’amakim about six months ago,” explained Ofir Algerabli, the organization’s founder. “Our goal is to support people who’ve lost loved ones who were not connected to the IDF. Bereaved families of Israeli soldiers receive a lot of monetary and emotional support from the Defense Ministry, as well as recognition by Israeli society.
“So, once the COVID-19 pandemic began, we realized that this was the perfect time to initiate our virtual funeral and shiva project. This venture is sponsored by Cisco, along with other organizations, and all the work is done on a voluntary basis. We intend to continue with this service even after the corona crisis is over, but I imagine there will be less demand for it.
“We also offer religious support – in addition to rabbis, we also have a priest and a sheikh who are working with us, all of whom are available to answer any questions people have regarding prayers, religious ceremonies, mourning laws and customs. Another project we’re working on now is offering this service to Jewish communities all around the world.”
“Families cannot hold funerals and shivas these days as they would have before the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Lior Ashkenazi, a senior digital technology manager at the Religious Services Ministry. “We are trying to make this difficult period in people’s lives a little bit easier. I’ve referred many people to Mima’amakim. At this very moment, we’re looking into installing private communication rooms in some of our large funeral halls around the country so that people can watch the funeral ceremonies and hear the eulogies without having to instruct someone there to film the funeral for them.”
“Yosef Weiner, my mother’s second husband, passed away on March 28,” said Sela’it Mordechai, from Netanya.
“We only heard about Mima’amakim after the funeral. They were extremely helpful to us during the shiva, and lots of our friends and family members were able to log in and have a virtual shiva visit with us. We didn’t even tell people where we were sitting shiva so they wouldn’t be tempted to come in person and put themselves or us at risk. The virtual shiva made us feel loved and offered people a way to communicate with us.
“It was mostly helpful for the younger family members and friends. The over-50 crowd had a little bit harder time adapting to the new technology, and so most of them just called us on the phone. But I saw how much of a difference it made for my mom, Nili Weiner, when she could see her loved ones on a screen, as opposed to just talking with them on the phone. It definitely helped her feel connected with people. And our contact at Mima’amakim kept calling to make sure everything was working properly.”
DAN’S GRANDMOTHER died at the end of March, and his family was also helped by Mima’amakim.
“The funeral was set to start at 4 p.m. At 3:50 I turned on the virtual room,” Dan recalls. “I filmed the funeral using my cellphone. Everyone who wasn’t at the funeral – which was practically everyone – entered the virtual room and heard all of the eulogies and were able to watch the rest of the funeral live. My grandmother has many family members who live overseas, and it was wonderful that everyone was able to join the virtual room.
“My grandfather didn’t come to the funeral so that he wouldn’t be exposed to the COVID-19. I set him up with a computer and he was able to watch the funeral from home. This was the best way for us to honor my grandmother. It was an especially difficult experience for me, since I was the one who filmed the funeral. Because I was busy with the video, I wasn’t able to really feel present. We held the shiva virtually, too. It was a little difficult for my parents’ generation to deal with all the technology, even though it’s actually pretty straightforward.”
For this reason, these services are now available from Derech Acheret, an organization that films funerals and memorial services for approximately NIS 1,500. Just a few weeks ago, Yifat Burkin, from Derech Acheret, hired photographer Yariv Dagan to take pictures and provide live video coverage at funerals and memorial services.
“The family receives a YouTube link, which they can then send to all of the people who want to watch the ceremony from home,” explained Burkin. “The video is extremely professional. We do not film things that are distressing to see or inappropriate. Our offices are near the Hadera cemetery. I can see the funerals from my window. It’s so sad seeing such small funerals. Our goal is to make the family feel like they are virtually surrounded by their loved ones.”
Watching funerals online has become more common in recent times, but it certainly isn’t a new phenomenon.
“Until July 2006, there was a computerized video apparatus set up to film funerals a the Kiryat Shmona Cemetery, so that people who couldn’t attend a funeral could still watch it live,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Kakon, the chairman of the Kiryat Shmona Religious Council.
“Unfortunately, following a barrage of katyusha rockets in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, all the equipment was destroyed. Since people had only taken advantage of this option occasionally, we decided not to invest the funds to construct a new system. Nowadays, many people just film the funerals by themselves and broadcast them to their family members who couldn’t be present.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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