Gladys Davis (far left) celebrated her 90th birthday six weeks ago with family members. They included her grandchildren Danny and Sara, seated to her left; son Gary and his wife Barb; daughter Laurie and her husband Joe; and daughter-in-law Meg and son Rick (standing right rear). Courtesy of the Davis Family.

Family mourns beloved grandma with few comforting traditions.

West Bloomfield resident Gladys “Gaby” Davis was mourned as a loving wife, mother, grandmother, sister and aunt at her March 23 funeral. She was remembered as a devoted teacher and volunteer, as well as a good cook and baker of Hungarian delicacies.

Her death two days earlier was especially wrenching for her family because she died of COVID-19, the first death in Detroit’s Jewish community.

“It wasn’t that she died of the coronavirus. It was that she died during this. I couldn’t kiss her. I didn’t want to touch her face wearing gloves, so I touched her head,” said her son Rick Davis, who lives in the Chicago area.

Gladys Davis had entered Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital early in the week of March 15 with pancreatitis. Because she lived at All Seasons West Bloomfield, which had several residents who had tested positive for the coronavirus, Davis was tested for that disease while hospitalized.

On Friday, her daughter and two sons, who live out of town, were notified the test was positive and raced to be with her.

“It was gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to watch her lose her breath as her lungs filled and there was nothing we could do,” Davis said. He added that his mother had beaten breast cancer twice, had had two hip replacements and a heart attack. Although frail, she was “very with it” and had made friends and enjoyed living at All Seasons for the past several years.

Because Davis was 90 and had weathered many health problems, the family wasn’t surprised at her death but was shocked at how sudden it was. Her son said that it was “very surreal and strange. You don’t think this is going to happen to you.”

He was told to wear a gown and gloves before entering his mother’s room but said the infection protocols were not consistent. His mother didn’t want a respirator and was not in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit when she passed away on March 21. He said that Henry Ford West Bloomfield was like a “ghost town” with no one in the cafeteria and most of its stores closed.

Rabbi Tamara Kolton officiated at Davis’ funeral at Workmen’s Circle Cemetery; the service was live-streamed to allow family and friends unable to attend to view it. Kolton noted that her death encompassed two big stories — the life of Gladys Davis within the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Because Davis was an expert needle pointer, Kolton used the analogy of a tapestry to talk about her, saying that Gladys and her husband, Mike, are now part of a global connection.

Rick Davis is saddened that the coronavirus “robbed us of the traditional process of humanness since the family couldn’t sit shivah. Shivah is a time for family to get together and share. We couldn’t tell the stories. There was no hugging.”

Mostly, Davis wants everyone to recognize Gladys’ humanity. “This wasn’t a statistic. This is my mom.”

Gladys Davis’ casket was adorned with hearts by family members because Davis collected hearts. Courtesy of Rabbi Tamara Kolton, with family permission.

Coronavirus Changes Jewish Funeral Traditions

Gladys Davis’ death from COVID-19 was the first time that stringent infection precautions had to be used along with traditional Jewish burial customs. According to Josh Tobias, funeral director at the Ira Kaufman Chapel, which handled the funeral arrangements, almost all local Jewish cemeteries require that the deceased individual undergo a complete taharah — a ritual washing and then wrapping of the body in a white shroud while traditional prayers are said. The Chevra Kadisha, or burial society, is comprised of Orthodox men and women who perform this function.

While the funeral home had personal protective gear for the Chevra Kadisha, there were still fears about possible infection. It was decided the ceremony would be limited to laying the shroud on top of Gladys Davis while prayers were said. 

Jewish tradition mandates there is always someone with the deceased individual until burial. That individual, known as the Shomer, along with several others who rotate in this role, sits in an adjacent room at the Kaufman Chapel so there is no potential exposure to the coronavirus.

The Detroit area’s three Jewish funeral homes and the Michigan Board of Rabbis agreed several weeks ago on changes in funeral arrangements to comply with Gov. Whitmer’s 10-person limits on group gatherings. Funerals are held at graveside with only one clergy officiating and a maximum of 10 family members. Tobias says that Oakview Cemetery in Royal Oak, which includes sections for several local Jewish congregations, permits only three individuals at the graveside service, and they must be from the same household.