MRA Funeral Practices During The Current COVID-19 Crisis

Over the past several weeks, amidst a daily changing situation, the members of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association have been thinking deeply about how we can fulfill our rabbinic responsibility to honor the dead (k’vod hamet), comfort the mourners, (nichum aveilim), and protect the community (pikuach nefesh).

The scientific and medical communities have made it clear that we must make every effort to slow the spread of this virus, and that the best practice is to avoid physical contact with all people outside your immediate home. Minnesota is trying to be a leader in preventing the type of medical disaster that we are seeing in other US states, and as community leaders, it is our responsibility to do all we can to model life-saving behavior.

Therefore, the members of the MRA have agreed that:

For the foreseeable future, all funerals will take place graveside, with only mortuary professionals in physical attendance. Clergy and mourners will participate remotely via electronic technology. 

Shiva will also take place using remote electronic technology. We encourage mourners to consider holding a memorial gathering at a later date as well.

We are pained to make the decision but we know it is for the health of our community and the mourners themselves. We are choosing life – the final gift our deceased loved ones can give to their families, friends, and community.


On March 12, Rabbi Morris Allen and Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, on behalf of the MRA and with the support of its co-chairs Rabbi Aaron Weininger and Rabbi Jill Crimmings, met with Henry Epstein, owner of Hodroff Epstein, Michael Epstein, owner, and Jim Wardlow, beloved and trusted funeral director to discuss reports of COVID-19 virus and determine safe funeral practices for community, families and fulfilling the commandment to honor the deceased.

We were driven by the example of our historic priests of ancient times who, during the time of leprosy, both pastorally attended to the ill and safeguarded the health of the community.

We took counsel from Jewish tradition and the science known about the coronavirus spread, contagion, and consequences. At that time, the DHS’s recommendations were that fewer than 10 people can gather for a funeral service, keeping 6 feet apart.  Within these guidelines, we set up the following policies.

  • All services will be graveside

  • No more than 10 people assembled – fewer preferable

  • Everyone stays 6 feet apart from one another

    • The mourners

    • The rabbi/cantor

    • The funeral professional staff (includes cemetery staff)

    • No filling of the grave

    • Service limited to 10-15 minutes

In the two weeks following, many deaths and burials in the community occurred. To our knowledge, none of the deaths were a result of COVID-19 – but none of the deceased were tested. Some family members traveled through airports to be present at the funeral without self-quarantine. The 6 feet apart rule was difficult to enforce and often required the rabbi to set boundaries.

In the ensuing time, Governor Walz sent out a policy/edict that no one but funeral staff and clergy could be at the grave during a funeral. Hodroff-Epstein and MRA applauded the rule.

Within 36 hours, the policy was overturned. As a result, on March 29, the MRA gathered remotely, to discuss to best respond to new information, including:

  1. We do not know how anyone individual will respond after they have been exposed.  Some people display no symptoms, others are on ventilators for over a week at a time.  The incubation can be very long before an individual begins to display symptoms, meaning they can unknowingly spread the virus to others.  There is currently no vaccine or known effective treatments for COVID-19. The best practice is to avoid physical contact with all people outside your immediate home.

  2. Minnesota is trying to be a leader in preventing the type of medical disaster that we are seeing in other US states.

    1. We currently do not have enough ventilators, or ICU capacity, to meet the needs of people who will need them.  The state of MN is working to meet this need and we need to be supportive by remaining physically distant so we do not overwhelm the system.

    2. Medical professionals are getting sick and dying themselves.  We must protect those who are saving lives.

In light of all this information, and after thoughtful discussion, the rabbis of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association voted to adopt the more stringent policy as stated above.