Dust to Dust: How Jewish burial traditions in Columbus have changed due to COVID-19

Community News

The COVID-19 crisis has caused long-held traditions to change, even those held deeply and faithfully across multiple generations.

While other religious organizations have been able to transition services or funerals easily, the Jewish community in Columbus has faced several challenges due to the social distancing required to fight the spread of the virus.

Jewish burial traditions have remained largely unchanged for centuries. Now, the pandemic has forced those traditions to adapt as the number of deaths due to COVID has risen over 520,000.

“For COVID to really interrupt that reverence has been painful, has been difficult,” said Rabbi Beth Schwartz of Temple Israel.

In the Jewish tradition, mourning and burial are community efforts. From the moment a Jew dies, a group called the Chevra Kadisha, or Holy Friends, steps in to begin the burial preparation process.

“When a Jewish person passes away, they usually give me a call, or the rabbi a call,” said Gerry Siegel, a Chevra Kadisha in Columbus.

For the Jewish community, caring for the dead is steeped in traditions carried on for centuries. The body is not just a lost loved one, but something holy, a part of G-d.

“When we deal with the body and preparation of the body, we see it as being extremely holy and precious and sacred,” said Rabbi Brian Glusman of Shearith Israel.

Whether they’ve died at home, in a hospice unit, or at the hospital, the first thing Siegel does as the Chevra Kadisha is cover the body “completely with a sheet.”

“We do that because Jewish people don’t like to look at someone who’s passed away because they can’t look back at you, it’s like looking over a person sleeping, just watching ’em,” Siegel said.

The time from death to burial is fast in the Jewish tradition.

“Our tradition is that funerals happen pretty quickly after death because we do not embalm… because we want to maintain the integrity of the body,” Schwartz said.

After someone has died and the Chevra Kadisha have covered the body, Siegel calls Striffler-Hamby, a local mortuary, to come pick up the dead and place them in cold storage before the Chevra Kadisha begin the purification and cleansing process for the dead.

Normally the committee is made up of three to five people who cleanse, pray for, and prepare the body, then watch over the dead until burial. The watcher, known as a shomer, stays with the body until the funeral starts.

But this traditional process of body preparation by the Chevra Kadisha has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Well the process has changed because of the COVID, we don’t actually handle the body, actually come in here and do the work with the body because we don’t know whether they had COVID, didn’t have COVID, anything like that,” Siegel said.

Siegel and the other Chevra Kadisha in Columbus have given some guides to Striffler-Hamby to assist in the burial preparation process, called taharah in Hebrew.

“It’s changed,” Siegel said. “So, the funeral home, we speak with Teddy, we’ve given him instructions as to what we want done and how we do it, and how the shrouds are done and how we wash the body, and they proceed to handle it for us.”

The most difficult challenge for Siegel and the other members of the Chevra Kadisha in Columbus has been a simple one: how to handle a body.

(Teddy Price and Gerry Siegel stand in front of a pine casket, the type used in Jewish burials, at Striffler-Hamby Mortuary-Columbus)
LTR: Teddy Price, general manager at Striffler-Hamby in Columbus, and Gerry Siegel, the Chevra Kadisha.

“We’re not able to actually handle the body itself. To wash it, to clean it, and prepare it for burial. We can’t actually put our hands on it, be hands-on, and that sort of bothers me,” Siegel said.

The Columbus Jewish community has been able to continue carrying out their traditions to honor and care for the dead, even with some changes due to the ongoing pandemic, with the help of Striffler-Hamby Mortuary.

Jewish burial rites require certain objects to be used in cleansing and preparation, including a mourner’s button, a burial shroud, a prayer shawl, a yarmulke, and sand from Israel to be sprinkled into the casket.

Particularly traditional, or orthodox, mourners even sit on a low-seated bench for shiva, the Jewish week-long mourning period.

The services themselves have been largely virtual, outside of some direct family, allowing for a gathering of the 10 Jewish adults, or in Hebrew a “minyan,” for prayer at the service.

The mourning and prayer services for immediate family, known as “sitting shiva,” has also gone mostly virtual during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing the Jewish community to mourn together even as they must remain separate physically.

“The ultimate goal is to make sure their loved one is honored in the fashion it needs to be,” Teddy Price, Stiffler-Hamby general manager, said. “In this particular instance to honor the traditions that are very steeped in the Jewish traditions, that’s our main goal.”

One of those traditions involves the type of casket used for burial by Jewish congregations.

An example of a pine casket used in Jewish burials.
The “Magen David” or “Star of David” is placed on the bottom half of the casket towards the middle. When the casket is carried, pall bearers will always move with the feet first, according to Gerry Siegel, the Chevra Kadisha.

“Within Judaism, bodies are always buried in a plain pine box, the preferred is a plain pine box or a wooden casket. We do not bury our deceased in ornate caskets, bronze, or golden caskets, it’s always a plain pine box, a wooden casket. Because, according to our tradition it’s ‘dust to dust’ back into the earth,” Glusman said.

Placed in the casket, body remains in the shroud, and sand from Israel is sprinkled, hearkening back to Genesis 3:19, “…for dust you are and to dust you will return…” with the dust being the soil of the Holy Land. Jews bury their dead quickly, to preserve the holiness and purity of the dead.

Striffler-Hamby has assisted the Chevra Kadisha of Columbus in preparing the bodies for burial, from washing the bodies to dressing the dead for burial, and ordering the “orthodox” caskets for Jewish residents. The funeral home also holds several items needed for Jewish burial rites on hand, such as burial shrouds, buttons to signify those in mourning, yarmulke/kippah, a traditional Jewish head covering, for the dead and prayer shawls for burial.

During the actual funeral, Striffler-Hamby has provided gloves, hand sanitizer, and sometimes even shoveled the first portions of dirt over the casket on behalf of Jewish family members in order to help preserve social distancing needs during COVID-19.

Glusman says the pandemic has helped him reach more of his congregation through digital tools than he could be with before the coronavirus changed each step of the process. The pandemic has also seen the community come together despite different opinions on a number of topics.

The funerals held at Riverdale Cemetery, where the city’s Jewish sections are located, have also been mostly virtual during the pandemic.

“I have to say, while the congregation itself might be at odds politically, just as many of us are, many of our families are, when it comes to addressing the pandemic and safeguarding ourselves and others, we’ve been aligned and united,” Glusman said. “There’s been absolutely no pushback about how we’ve addressed our burial needs.”

The local Jewish communities have their own burial sites. Members of the Temple Israel synagogue are buried in a section of Riverdale Cemetery that is encircled by hedges. Shearith Israel also has three sections in the cemetery.

In Columbus, generations of Jews have been buried in a few locations, such as Jewish sections at Riverdale Cemetery, a plot in Linwood Cemetery, and the private, historic Levy-Moses plot on Esquiline Hill.

There are four Jewish sections at Riverdale Cemetery. One is owned by Temple Israel, called B’Nai Israel at the time when it was purchased.

“The property was acquired in 1891. We do have some graves almost that old,” Schwartz said. “Some of the older graves note only the date of death and not the date of birth. That’s an old tradition in a Jewish cemetery.”

The three other Jewish sections at Riverdale are owned by Shearith Israel. One is located in the northeast corner of the cemetery, “is flanked by a brick wall and wrought iron gate,” and was given by the Grifenhagen family in 1987, according to Riverdale-Porterdale Cemetery Foundation, Inc. Another, the Kravtin Garden, was dedicated in 1997 in memory of Maurice Kravtin, a previous leader of the Columbus Chevra Kadisha. The third is separate and historic, located near the Temple Israel section.

All of the Jewish sections at Riverdale are maintained by representatives from the congregations in Columbus. At the cemetery, the graves are tended differently by mourners of different faiths. Instead of flowers, various types of stones are laid upon the graves.

“Flowers die and that just reminds us of our loss and our sadness. But we do place a stone of some kind on a grave,” Schwartz said. “Stones don’t get there by themselves. Someone must come to put it there. To us…that is how we honor and respect and remember.”

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