Stories & Voices
Providing Dignity in Death During the Pandemic
April 28th, 2020

An elderly mother burying her son. A brother, who has disabilities, burying his 37-year-old brother who also had disabilities. An 87-year-old sister trying to make burial arrangements for her 80-year-old sister.

These are just some of the 128 burials the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA), a UJA partner, has made possible in the last four weeks during the pandemic. To put that into perspective, over the same period last year, 30 burials occurred. HFBA is dedicated to providing a dignified traditional Jewish funeral to every Jew, especially for someone who has no friends or family to make arrangements or if their family cannot afford a funeral.

HFBA has received $250,000 through UJA’s emergency funding to help meet the extraordinary need.

“At least half the cases are from nursing homes. We’re overwhelmed. But we haven’t turned any cases away,” says Amy Koplow, HFBA executive director. “We’ve saved people from cremation. We’ve saved people from the city cemetery and being buried in mass graves.”

The rabbi at HFBA has officiated at every one of the 128 burials, providing a eulogy for each person along with traditional prayers.

Over three quarters of the burials have no family members able to attend the funeral, in some cases because they are also sick with the virus.

Because of fear of infection, family members who can attend must remain in their cars while the rabbi shares the service with them through a cell phone. The family watches through car windows.

“One of the biggest challenges for us is always to try to bury within 24 hours,” Amy says, referring to the Jewish tradition of burying a person as soon as possible. “The rate of death has made that impossible in many cases.”

When the crisis began, Amy notes that the city’s medical examiner office outlined a plan of response called the “Mass Casualty Surge Plan.”

“And that is what we have,” she says. “Yesterday, we had 11 burials — all in one day.”