Detroit’s three Jewish funeral homes continue to take extra precautions to counteract the potential spread of COVID, including providing hand sanitizer and masks.
For many months during 2020 and 2021, Jewish funerals were held at graveside with only a limited number of attendees; some were able to watch online services. Shivahs were often held only on Zoom. These policies, established by the Michigan Board of Rabbis, were implemented to comply with the state’s COVID restrictions on public gatherings.
As vaccinations increased and COVID cases declined, the state eased restrictions in June and removed all limits on public events in July. Funerals can again be held indoors without capacity restrictions.
However, Detroit’s three Jewish funeral homes continue to conduct most services at graveside, often limited to family members only. “Some people are still very nervous about COVID and rightfully so,” says Otto Dube, managing funeral director at Hebrew Memorial Chapel in Oak Park. Many funeral attendees are older and therefore more health-conscious, he says, and there is concern about the COVID variant.
In addition, Dube says that some rabbis prefer services to be held outside. Currently, slightly more of Hebrew Memorial’s services are being held at graveside than in their chapel.
Jonathan Dorfman, co-owner of the Dorfman Chapel in Farmington Hills, says, “We are on a path to get back to where things were, but a lot of people are still cautious.” About half of their funerals are being held at graveside and half in their chapel, compared to 80% inside prior to COVID.
At the Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield, about 80% of funerals are held at the grave, compared to 30-40% previously. “People have gotten more comfortable with graveside services, but I think there will be a shift when the weather changes,” says Josh Tobias of Kaufman Chapel.
Graveside services offer some advantages unrelated to COVID — such as a slightly lower cost. In addition, Dube says that some people prefer a single location rather than having to travel to both the funeral chapel and cemetery. However, indoor chapels — whether at funeral homes or cemeteries — are temperature-controlled while bad weather can make graveside services uncomfortable.
Livestreamed funeral services have become much more common. “They provided a real benefit when people couldn’t or didn’t want to travel to Detroit,” says Tobias. “It’s become much more important. It was really heartbreaking when COVID prevented family members from attending funerals.”
All three Jewish funeral homes continue to take extra precautions to counteract the potential spread of COVID, including providing hand sanitizer and masks. Some families request that unvaccinated individuals wear masks or refrain from attending funerals and shivahs. Dorfman says that about 5-10% of funeral attendees wear masks. “It’s a comfort issue,” he explains. Tobias points out that because children can’t be vaccinated, they pose a greater risk for developing and transmitting COVID.
For many months, shivahs were relegated mainly to Zoom events — eliminating the warmth of in-person gatherings but providing access for those out of town. “Everything was on Zoom and then outside,” says Tobias. Some families now hold shivahs outside at temples or synagogues, such as at Temple Israel’s outdoor pavilion.
“Shivahs have started to come back,” says Dorfman, although most temples and synagogues ask that volunteer or clergy-led services be held outside. “There are a lot of shivahs in backyards. They are very nice and comforting,” says Dube.