A Covid-era funeral is its own challenge, but it can be seen as part of a forgotten history of plague processionals. We may not want to think of medieval parades with priests blessing their followers to ward off the pest, but they are our predecessors, providing examples we most likely don’t want to follow.
My mother’s Covid-era funeral took place on the far reaches of Vancouver, just into New Westminster on an August morning. A Jewish funeral is its own peculiar, careful, but also down-to-earth undertaking. The expectations of such a funeral seemed to fit the times, even to exemplify them. The Schara Tzedeck cemetery sits on a softly rising hill, a shoulder of land at a distance from the Fraser River. From it you have only a sense – a vague scent of sawmill and garden farm – that you are on a riverbank’s rise. The grounds have a low-key, almost art nouveau simplicity, with headstones of remarkable stylistic sameness spread widely, marked here and there by neatly trimmed greens – shrubs served up like desserts – which are a Vancouver specialty.
It’s a peaceful place to be whether you are dead or alive.
A Jewish funeral often begins in a chapel. At the Schara Tzedeck cemetery there is a substantial one on the grounds. But it was cut out of the procedure in Covid times. What was in the chapel, on its own, under a blue ceremonial covering, was my mother’s carefully prepared body inside its closed simple pine casket. It took us by surprise; it was almost as if she had been set out there on purpose, out of sight. But my brother and I stayed with the coffin once we found it, our hands on the plush blue cover, as if we could enter it this way and comfort the body inside.
The casket rested on a wheeled frame. Six mourners – not including my brother or myself – rolled the casket up the long incline to the far northeast corner of the grounds where my mother was to be buried near her mother. This was a miraculous proximity that my mother may have worked out by choice, though I don’t know this for sure.
Our route to the plot was slowed seven times, the pallbearers and followers hesitating, then continuing, following a custom meant to remind us that we were not in a hurry to finish what we were doing. How not in a hurry I was to complete that walk.
Two cemetery staffers placed and lowered the casket into the grave, sending it down on a pair of bands like heavy ribbons. Our small group stood at more or less Covid-style distance from each other, wearing masks, and there was something restrained in that stance that wasn’t inappropriate for watching the casket be lowered; for the few prayers, psalms, the mourner’s kaddish to be read; for the eulogies my brother and I removed our masks to say in the bright unsheltering late-morning light.
Then we shovelled. We’d been given enough dirt to cover the casket but not to fill the hole to the top. (What, we wondered later, had been done with the rest of the dirt that would be needed to finish things?) The shovels set out for us were not simply handed from one helper to the next but were wiped down between hand-off for Covid-era safety. It’s good work, filling a parent’s grave.
We bested the circumstances and hardly felt the "restrictions" as we came down the hillside. All the right things had been said and done, without rush, haphazard adjustments, or missed opportunities to recall my mother in her good and ill fortune as she slipped from us in her 89th year.
[Photo: jmv, Schara Tzedeck Cemetery, New Westminster, BC]
Norman Ravvin’s books have won prizes across Canada. His novels include The Joyful Child, Café des Westens, Lola by Night, and The Girl Who Stole Everything (LLP, 2019). He has traveled often to his family’s prewar home in Poland, and this experience informs his writing. He lives in Montreal.
[PHOTO: Allen McInnis]