Funeral directors eager to see end of isolated mourning

Craig Roth (left), of Rindskopf-Roth Funeral Chapel, lost his father, Norman, in June.


Craig Roth has seen what a funeral during the COVID-19 pandemic looks like from two perspectives: as a mourner and as the person helping the bereaved make arrangements. 

In June, his father, Norman, died from cancer at age 75. Meanwhile, the family business, Rindskopf-Roth Funeral Chapel, has seen an increase in the number of people seeking its services during the pandemic.

(The Jewish Light printed 373 obituaries from March 2019 through the end of February 2020 and 417 from March 2020 to the end of February 2021, an 11%  increase.) 

Still, whether it was his father or a client, Roth said, “We were bound by the same rules as the rest of the world. We were limited in attendance and had to do things like we were doing for everyone else.”

Roth and others in the local Jewish funeral business said the past year has proved challenging in large part because they are counseling families who are unable to gather for funerals and shivas as they normally would. 

“It’s been a very, very hectic, taxing, overwhelming year,” said Emily MacDonald, funeral director with Berger Memorial Chapel. “It’s been that way for a lot of reasons: one, because we have received more calls. Two, because we are doing things a little differently. And three, because we want to stay safe and want each other to remain healthy.”

Before the pandemic, MacDonald would often make a shiva call, which is a visit during the gatherings Jewish families host in the week after the funeral. But with shivas being restricted to very small numbers or taking place only virtually, “If I am not at a funeral, it’s hard to let families now that I am thinking of them,” said MacDonald, who is in the fifth generation of her family to work at the chapel. 

Early in the pandemic, MacDonald called a mourner who told her how isolated she felt. 

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“She just said, ‘I drove to the service alone. I was surrounded by my immediate and extended family, but then I drove home and just kind of waited,’ ” MacDonald recalled. “Her friends wanted to do so much for her, but no one really knew what to do because our personal interactions were so limited. It put things in perspective for me. I think I have adjusted by following up with families more readily, checking in to see how everyone is doing.”

In the first months of the pandemic, fewer peopled believed that the virus posed such a great threat and that all the new rules were necessary, said Anita Feigenbaum, director of the Chesed Shel Emeth Society, which manages cemeteries in Chesterfield and University City.

“Having the restrictions felt like you were penalizing the family, but as COVID became more rampant, then people understood, and we had no complaints whatsoever,” she said.

She and others in the local Jewish funeral industry have also made the familiar COVID adjustment: adding a virtual option. 

Zoom calls during shiva have helped families cope with the loss of a loved oneand the loss of the usual support, Feigenbaum said.

Roth expects video streaming to become a fixture of funerals, even after the pandemic.

If the threat posed by the virus continues to subside, Feigenbaum anticipates that gravestone dedications will act as an occasion for family and friends to gather the way they would have for a funeral.

In the meantime, during the February cold, Berger Memorial decided to open its chapel for small, socially distanced services. The chapel has used industrial cleaner and different microphones for services, MacDonald said. If the infection numbers continue to trend in the right direction, MacDonald said, she hopes to open for larger gatherings.

And while Roth continues to mourn the loss of his father, he said he is encouraged by how the local Jewish community “has really stepped up and seems to really have a good grasp of what is going on, how to protect themselves in public situations, and has been very understanding when I have had to tell them, ‘Your attendance can only be 10 people.’ I am grateful that there has not been a lot of anger.”