Dignity for the deceased as burial staff deal with surge of deaths during pandemic

United Synagogue praises the dedication of employees as funerals this month are almost double the number held in January 2020


The snow that fell a few days ago has yet to fully melt across the large open expanse that is the United Synagogue’s Bushey New Cemetery.

But the frozen white covering only serves to highlight the red wooden frames marking dozens of newly-filled graves in the winter sunshine.

Around half the wooden frames mark the graves of those whose lives have been cruelly cut short as a result of coronavirus, staff at the Hertfordshire burial site later tell me.

So great has the demand been for frames since the start of the pandemic last March — and again in more recent weeks as a result of the aggressive new strain of the virus — that an order to replenish rapidly diminishing supplies has just gone in.

Last January, there were 79 burials in US cemeteries. For January 2021, the US expects the figure to be around 150.

Nothing will lessen the pain felt by so many within the community who have lost loved ones during the pandemic.

Yet witnessing first-hand how Bushey — its two cemeteries currently the resting place for some 45,850 British Jews — is managing to cope with the huge demands placed upon it by this crisis is, contrastingly, quite life-affirming.

“Everything now has to be electronic,” said head of operations Linda Boxer as she outlined the burial process in the Covid era.

“When a family member got a death certificate, they used to go and get them from the doctor and take it to the registrar. Now things have to get emailed directly to the registrar and then a certificate is emailed to us.

“We had to set up a system that all of our staff team could see at once,” she added. “We have a large staff. We work as team and we collaborate all the time with what’s going on.

“We have had to deal with hospitals, registry offices, in a completely different way and adapt our procedures.”

The bodies of Covid victims are kept separate when collected from the place of death and staff travelling in its ambulances wear full PPE at all times.

There is a new separate storage section at the cemetery for the bodies of virus victims.

However, some of the changes to the way Bushey operates are rather more obvious to the visitor.

Every funeral service now takes place outside, away from the prayer halls.

And in another sign of the times, one of the halls has been repurposed as a storage facility for empty coffins.

All the water fountains at the picturesque grounds have been taken out of service and covered up. Prayer books distributed to the permitted number of up to 30 mourners are immediately placed into a 48-hour quarantine after use.

A smaller room is now home to the carefully marked boxes which store the prayer books for the two-day period before they can be used again.

Rabbi Daniel Epstein of Cockfosters and North Southgate Synagogue has arrived to officiate at the first funeral of the day.

Like so many US ministers, he has efficiently adapted to the changing demands of burial services. He has also been volunteering for other tasks, including the digging and the lowering of coffins, if needed, at Bushey, and also at the US’s Waltham Abbey site.

Rabbi Epstein asks permission from those gathered for the funeral of Rose Saunders to remove his face mask in order to officiate -— and also to place a tripod directly “on the aron [coffin] without being disrespectful to her memory as an important part of keeping people connected at this very difficult time”.

For while the strict rules on limiting the number in attendance is observed, the subsequent broadcast of the service on Zoom allows relatives in Israel and elsewhere to feel involved.

Mrs Saunders’ passing was not Covid-related. But any death during the pandemic leaves the grieving family facing the prospect of burying a loved one in a manner they would never have contemplated a year ago.

For her grandson Oliver Stopnitsky, who delivered a heartfelt and moving tribute, the fact that many of her friends and family were able to view the ceremony online was clearly comforting. “It has been a surreal ten months,” Rabbi Epstein later told the JC. “Many people can’t physically attend a funeral but Zoom allows more to do so.

“The irony is that with the horrendous losses to many families that this pandemic has brought, this is one of the strange benefits that this time can give you.

“Funerals with fewer people in attendance I actually think are a more dignified thing.”

Rabbi Epstein suggested that post-coronavirus, it would be beneficial if funerals were conducted with smaller numbers present on the grounds, and more paying their respects via Zoom.

“Mourners don’t always have the headspace to deal with hundreds of people,” he reasoned.

The generous comments from those viewing Mrs Saunders’ funeral digitally would appear to support the rabbi’s claim.

It becomes quickly apparent that there are plenty of unsung heroes at the cemetery.

Gravedigger David Nash said there had been some tough days during the pandemic where he had to dig up to 15 four foot-deep holes.

But he is dedicated to his job, which runs in the family, as well as to serving a Jewish community he was not born into but one which he clearly respects.

“It really has been hard,” he said. “We tried doing funerals every 20 minutes at the beginning. But that didn’t work out so we went to every half-an-hour.”

Mrs Boxer and US head of burial Melvyn Hartog both highlighted the immense team spirit among the 50-strong staff at Bushey that has been so beneficial at this most difficult of times.

Emphasising this, US cemeteries manager Mark Williams revealed that two members of his busy team had agreed to travel to Sheffield with the body of someone who passed away at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow but had remained a US shul member in the Yorkshire congregation.

Mr Williams praised the “unbelievable” job his gravediggers have done over the past ten months, preparing reclaimed land at the cemetery for new graves.

“We can do a dig in anything from three hours to a day-and-a-half — you can’t tell what the ground is going to be like until you start.

“The water movement, things such as tyres buried in the ground. They have done so well. None of them have ever moaned to me and the reason they all say they want to do it is because of the families.”

Outside the rooms where the taharah — the ritual cleaning of the deceased — takes place, Lissie Morris, head of the women’s chevrah kadishah, said the rota system of volunteers who carried out the mitzvah had been impacted by the virus.

As many of the elderly volunteers began to shield, the rota system was replaced by an emergency taharah WhatsApp group.

“If we put on there that we need four taharahs for the morning, it rarely takes longer than 60 seconds to get them [volunteers],” Ms Morris reported.

She stressed that Covid prevention and other hygiene rules were observed to the letter by those involved in the process.

“It’s a privilege to be able to do this,” she added.

“We have more people on board, they are not as nervous and we are more confident we know how to protect them.”

And for those who had passed away from Covid — and the loved ones who survived them —“we make sure they are given the utmost respect and dignity that we can give them.”

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