Business Insider: "Religious leaders are facing the challenge of holding funerals as social distancing limits gatherings to bury the dead"

Published: April 22, 2020 • Updated: April 22, 2020

Author: Yaqeen Institute

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

  • Communities across the US are grappling with ways to hold burials and funerals amid heightened social-distancing guidelines.
  • While tools like livestreaming make it easier for people to attend remotely, some find it emotionally difficult not to be present at an event.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Social-distancing guidelines are affecting sacred traditions like funerals and burials.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, religious leaders are grappling with ways to hold such events while abiding by legal guidelines and their obligations to keep their congregations safe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines in recent weeks on how morticians could deal with burials and funerals. The advice ranged from trying not to touch the body of those who died to limit funerals to family and livestreaming services.
Omar Suleiman, an imam in Dallas who founded the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, told Business Insider he’d been having extensive conversations with his congregation on the ways the novel coronavirus could affect religious traditions and habits, including customs around funerals.
“Once we start seeing the inevitable happen, I don’t know if people are going to miss out on the Janazah,” Suleiman said.
Muslim tradition includes cleansing the body before burial and performing a prayer called Janazah for the dead. Suleiman said the prayer was “flexible” and required only one person to conduct. Additionally, it does not have to be done in the presence of the body.
Suleiman said some guidelines might be to limit the cleansing of the body to professionals who could abide by the restriction and allow only immediate family members to attend the burials. Additionally, he said it helped if officials gave clear guidelines on limits because it made it easier to discuss alternatives and prepare communities.
He said while members of a community might feel emotional about not being able to attend a burial or funeral for a beloved community member, in Islam, “when someone passes away, you’re supposed to pray for them and do good for them.”
He added that faith members should approach the issue from the perspective that by abiding by social-distancing guidelines and making sure people stay safe, “this is how you honor the dead.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler of the Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford, Connecticut, described how in Judaism there’s great emphasis on respecting the body.
“When physical life comes to an end, the body must be treated with absolute respect,” Adler said.
Therefore burial and funeral traditions involve the cleansing and preparation of the body to go back into the earth.
The practice of tahara, or purification, for example, involves pouring water over the body.
In some instances, a mikvah would take place, in which the body is immersed in a pool of water, possibly causing some of the water to overflow. Adler said that in light of the pandemic, facilities that take this approach should have a drainage system and safety precautions in place for those who perform them.
But just like Suleiman, he said the funeral services were also reduced to close family members to limit contact. He added, however, that other “creative efforts” were being used by various faith communities.
For example, people who attend a Jewish burial might normally shovel dirt into the grave. To limit the risk from this practice, Adler said, each person may now wear gloves as they hand off the shovel.
Other measures meant to reduce the number of people at a funeral include specifying in obituaries that services are for family members only or even leaving out the date or location of a service altogether, while perhaps providing a link to a livestream of the service.
But one of the most difficult ritual adjustments was the shiva, the seven days of mourning that immediate family members partake in after a person has died.
Adler said that while people would normally visit mourners at their house during those seven days, people were coming up with “creative” alternative ways of demonstrating support.
Despite the difficulties that come with altering traditions in light of an outbreak, both Suleiman and Adler said there’s a need to “protect life.”
“I think every religion is doing its best to protect the sanctity of its traditions and public health and well-being,” Adler said.
While faith leaders and morticians are modifying the way they proceed with funerals, those who’ve lost loved ones still find it difficult to grieve without a traditional service.
Steven Thrasher, a professor at Northwestern University, recently attended a livestreamed funeral for Lorena Borjas, a transgender Latinx activist who died of COVID-19. While Thrasher told Business Insider he didn’t know Borjas, they had many common friends and worked on similar causes.
“It was very frustrating not to hug them. It’s very hard to be supportive on the screen,” Thrasher said. “I’m grateful that people could get together. It was also really painful.”
He said that for those in the trans community specifically, those who come from immigrant backgrounds tend to have compounding traumas, so attending a funeral isn’t just about grieving for someone who died but also a way to congregate over their shared traumas and the causes they care about.
Thrasher said that normally someone like Borjas, who Vice described as someone beloved by many for her advocacy work for trans women, would have been honored by the community with a memorial and a march, but that’s not possible during this outbreak.
“A livestream does not replace being with others,” Thrasher said.
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