Jewish burials: open air and on-line

Jewish burials: open air and on-line

Lena Roos

Practices during the pandemic, Religion and community | English | Sweden

Lena Roos, Professor, Study of Religions, Södertörn University

Restrictions during the pandemic meant a return to more traditional burial practices, as well as radical changes for Jews in Sweden.

The Jewish communities in Sweden were severely affected early on in the pandemic due to the fact that the first wave of covid infections coincided with the holiday Purim, when family members from various generations get together to celebrate. The virus also made it into the Jewish senior residence in Stockholm, resulting in a number of fatalities. This probably accelerated the decision-making process in the Jewish communities in Sweden, in comparison with many other religious communities, and as of March 19th, 2020, the Great Synagogue in Stockholm closed for IRL services and started sending zoom services for Friday kabbalat shabbat as well as a weekday morning service.[1]

Due to the number of early casualties, the Jewish burial societies were forced to speed up the process of burial, so that in many cases the burial took place the same day that the person had died, or at least the following. This is essentially a return to a more traditional Jewish practice, where speedy burials are the ideal, even if this is seen as a rare thing in Swedish society, where Christian burials are often postponed for several weeks until the family members can agree on a suitable date. On the other hand, the speedy burials during the pandemic meant overcoming a previous resistance to use of digital media. In the past, there had been a reluctance to even allowing photos to be taken during the burial. Now there was a clash between two principles that were both perceived as important: on the one hand the practice of the speedy burial, on the other hand, the commandment to attend funerals. It is considered a mitzvah, a meritorious deed, to attend burials, especially for friends and family, but also for others. During the pandemic, however, due to restrictions on travel, often not even the closest relatives could attend IRL. Was it then reasonable to prevent relatives from attending the funeral through livestream? Before long, this had become an accepted part of Jewish burials, enabling friends and family who were sheltered in their homes, or maybe lived in Israel, to attend the funerals. And so it has remained after the pandemic.

Another clash was between Jewish traditional practice and the restrictions for religious gatherings imposed by the Swedish government, a maximum of eight participants during the height of the pandemic. Many Jewish prayers, such as the kaddish, the prayer for the departed, requires a minyan, a group of ten adult (traditionally, male) Jews. This was however solved by transferring the funeral service outside. A new tradition developed where only the closest family was allowed into the funeral chapel to say their goodbye to the deceased. The rest of the mourners waited outside where the traditional ceremony then took place, and where the participants could keep a safe distance, and where the restrictions of merely eight participants did not apply.

[1] Baran, Rachel. 2020. När fysiska religiösa rum stängs och digitala mötesplatser öppnas. En kvalitativ studie av judiskt församlingsliv under coronapandemin våren 2020. Stockholms universitet.

Image credit: By Lars (Lon) Olsson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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