Social Distancing and Officiating Funerals: Pitfalls and Promising Practices

Social Distancing and Officiating Funerals: Pitfalls and Promising Practices

Social Distancing and Officiating Funerals: Pitfalls and Promising Practices

April 17, 2020

Speaking to fellow religious leaders from various traditions on ICJS’ weekly “Congregational Creativity in a Time of Crisis” zoom meeting, Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, Md. (and former ICJS Jewish Scholar) shared his recent experience conducting a virtual funeral.

Two weeks ago – ahead of Passover, Holy Week, and the upcoming Ramadan fast – religious leaders who joined the call explored ways to help people find ritual and meaning in the absence of embodied worship. This week’s topic looked at the kinds of adjustments religious leaders are needing to consider even for rituals surrounding regular life events.

While Arian is very technologically savvy and has been teaching on Zoom for a couple of years, conducting adult learning simultaneously in person and online, he found the funeral presented some unique challenges. To this end, he offered the following learnings:

  • Have clear communications and expectation-setting conversations with the family beforehand. In Arian’s particular case, the funeral home gave the family conflicting information about the choreography of the service. It is important to ensure the family understands the particularities of a funeral rite in a given religious tradition and the ways in which the service will be adjusted so they are prepared beforehand and are ready for the inevitable glitches and modifications.
  • Ensure proper communication with the funeral home and/or cemetery. Besides the aforementioned miscommunication, it is important to note that funeral guidance and what is allowed is ever-changing, and there are multiple jurisdictions that may have conflicting restrictions and/or interpretations of legal guidelines. It is important to both get as much information about what is and is not permissible beforehand and be ready to adapt for the unknown.
  • Insist on those able to go to the gravesite returning to their car to complete the funeral. With the background noise of the elements and others at a cemetery, being able to complete the service in a more controlled environment will make for a better experience for the family.
  • Get guidance, if possible, from the applicable professional association. Arian is working with the Greater Washington Board of Rabbis to have them issue guidance that not only provides for a better funeral service experience for the family but also supports and advises officiants in the face of various well-meaning requests that might put religious leaders in danger.

Even as other religious leaders on the call were preparing for their first funeral in this COVID-19 world, the logistical and pastoral-care concerns around holding a phone and managing audio/video at a gravesite particularly hit home. Not having been a typical concern around funerals in the past, even the most practiced officiants are having to anticipate new technological and emotional hurdles in this era.

The idea of guidance from religious hierarchies and professional associations also was particularly prescient, as leaders on the call generally acknowledged the lack of such guidance from bodies within their traditions. One priest noted that the resources and guidance received had really all focused around Holy Week and Easter, but not beyond.

To that end, it was expressed by one Episcopal rector preparing for her first funeral that the ministry of presence would be first-and-foremost as she gave herself “huge permission” to figure out the rest in the absence of formal guidance.

Looking for such guidance right now throws into sharp relief patterns of authority — who determines best practices and whether those are suggestions or mandates — and how that plays out in different traditions with different structures. Across-the-board, however, religious leaders on the call described the experience of having to create a lot of things from scratch, working harder than ever while being in even higher demand.

Finally, Arian noted that, “while it is too early to think about opening things back up, it is not too early to think about what it will look like when we do re-open.” Even as we are erecting new practices and ways of being with one another, it is important to consider what practices we may want or need to keep in the mid-to-long term.

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