In Los Angeles and in other areas where the COVID-19 virus and the death toll from the virus have surged in recent weeks, not only hospitals and vaccination sites, but also mortuaries and funeral homes have been overwhelmed. In Los Angeles as of this date (January 19, 2021), somebody who dies today cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery for at least two weeks. This raises the question of how rabbis should meet the needs of those whose family members have died but have not yet been buried. The normal category for that stage of the burial and mourning process is anninut, during which close family members are exempted from many halakhic duties to enable them to prepare for the funeral, but that is assumed to be a few days at most; now,  if the family waits for burial, that period is lasting for weeks. In the current circumstances, I would recommend either of the following courses of action (A or B), depending on the situation:

A. Begin shiva as soon as arrangements for burial have been made, even though burial will be delayed for some time. If this alternative is chosen, follow the instructions in the responsum of Rabbi Joshua Heller here. (Special thanks to Rabbi Pamela Barmash for reminding me of Rabbi Heller’s responsum.)

B. Rabbi Heller’s responsum, however, was written for cases in which traditional Jewish burial was not anticipated. In many cases occurring now, though, families do intend to bury their loved ones in the traditional manner; they are just prevented from doing so in a timely manner because mortuaries and cemeteries have been overwhelmed with bodies to bury because of the pandemic. In such cases, rabbis may choose to advise mourners and the community to do this: 

  1. Family members of the deceased (parents, children, spouse, siblings) in aninut for an extended period of time may take advantage of the exemptions from halakhic duties that traditional Jewish law grants them, but once they have made funeral and shiva arrangements, they may also resume praying daily and the other normal activities of Jewish life until the funeral.
  2. Family members may rip their clothes as an act of mourning (kri’ah) and recite the accompanying berakhah at any time after the moment of death (or hearing of it). It may well be a great comfort to mourners to do this as a graphic expression of their grief soon after the death of their close relative. Rabbis may also invite members of the family to recall memories of the deceased in whatever communal services are possible during the pandemic even though the formal eulogy will take place at the funeral.
  3. The community should follow the guidance of Rabbi Daniel Greyber’s responsum in regard to comforting the mourners. His responsum addressed the cases in which the burial is postponed because of a Festival, but the same reasoning and practices that he develops for that context should be applied to this new one as well, when the funeral is postponed for lack of personnel to handle in the normal time frame of a few days the preparation of the bodies and their burial of the many people dying of COVID. His responsum is here. (Special thanks to Rabbi Daniel Greyber for his suggestions for adding to the original draft of this guidance.)
  4. In line with Rabbi Greyber’s responsum, which advocates comforting the mourners (nihum aveilim) even when formal shiva is postponed, rabbis are encouraged to announce the death to the congregation when it occurs and name and acknowledge the pain that the bereaved are suffering now so that congregants can engage in consoling the bereaved in the interim, even though the official shiva and communal support for the mourners is being postponed until after burial.
  5. Mourners may join a minyan in saying Mourner’s Kaddish during this time, for that prayer is simply a shortened version of Full Kaddish that we say several times daily. Moreover, it does not include a berakhah, and so reciting it cannot be construed as a berakhah levatalah, even though their loved one has yet to be buriedRabbis may suggest various sections of the Book of Psalms or other readings to aid in comforting the bereaved in this time period in place of, or in addition to, Mourner’s Kaddish. Mourners may, but need not, sit on low stools or cover their mirrors during an extended period of aninut.

[January 19, 2021]