My mother’s funeral
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FIRST PERSON

My mother’s funeral

What it’s like to have someone you love die of covid-19

Jerry and Lorraine Palmer in 2010, at Miriam and Dave’s wedding.
Jerry and Lorraine Palmer in 2010, at Miriam and Dave’s wedding.

The common wisdom is right. It is the thump of the clods of dirt on the cheap-by-design wood of the casket that makes you realize that this is it. She’s dead. It’s real, and it’s forever. She’s in that hole, the earth is on top of her, and she’s not flinging it aside and rising up.

Every single life is different, and so is every death.

And so is every funeral.

But with the mind-numbing numbers of deaths from covid-19 — as of Tuesday morning, it’s more than 42,000 deaths, according to the Washington Post — and with the images of bodies stacked in morgues, loaded into trucks, and carted away, some of them to be neatly buried in rows in Potters Field — sometimes it’s hard to remember that each one of those bodies used to be a person.

One of those people was my mother. This is the story of her death, and her funeral, and her shiva.

This is what we knew, for comparison, going in.

About 19 years ago, our daughter Shira died; she was 20, charismatic, smart, and funny, and she had many friends. Her funeral was massive; the huge room in the Upper West Side shul didn’t begin to hold everyone who came. We walked behind the hearse for a block, accompanied by what seemed like hordes of people; I remember staring at the sparkle in the asphalt between us and the car. The cemetery was packed; when we left, we walked between huge walls of people, like human waves that parted Red Sea-like for us. The shiva was like an enormous final for a graduate-level course in social skills, with people we hadn’t thought about in decades showing up, some people saying wonderful, loving things, and others being less appropriate. To understate.

Five years ago, my brother-in-law, David, died of brain cancer. He was 59. He died in a hospice, a building in the woods in Staten Island, by a stream, with huge windows, streams of light, an exquisitely sensitive staff, and — the detail I remember most clearly — floors made not of institutional, practical material but of lovely pale wood.

His death was untimely, and deeply sad; he had a lot of friends and relatives, and they were at his funeral, at the cemetery, and at shiva. It was the way it was supposed to be, in response to a death that wasn’t supposed to happen when and where it did.

My father died at 88, just a few months later. He’d faded for years, gently but unmistakably losing interest in being alive; when he died it was no surprise. We were sad but not shocked. His funeral and burial were sweet and sad and at shiva we shared memories and told stories and mourned and it was exactly as it should have been.

Lorraine and Jerry at their own wedding, in 1951, surrounded by his family.

And then there was my mother.

Lorraine Moses Palmer died a few weeks after her 90th birthday; she was born in the Bronx, to Hungarian immigrant parents — her mother was from near the Slovakian border, and her father in Transylvania — and died at Parker Jewish Institute, on the border between Queens and Long Island.

She was at Parker because she was suffering from dementia, which had begun a few years before our father died but we’d managed to write off as eccentricity until his death accelerated it. She’d gone through assisted living and hospital stays and many misadventures later ending up in the nursing home. She was assigned to the back unit on the top floor, the unit where the most severely affected patients lived.

Parker Jewish Institute, both by reputation and by what we saw, was a good place. It wasn’t run for profit, it didn’t cut corners, and it treated its patients with respect and care, even with love. That was clear to us.

My sister, my brother, my brother’s twin daughters, and I, in various configurations, all went to see our mother every Sunday morning. We’d walk into the building, go through the ever-changing security procedures (some weeks they’d want ID from all of us, some weeks from one of us, occasionally none of us; the photos in which we were entirely indistinguishable from each other because we each looked like blobs of black ink), up the slow elevators, and through the double doors with the sign above it, invisible to everyone but me, that said “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

We’d walk past our mother’s neighbors — the man who made motorboat noises all day long, the large woman who talked constantly about how angry her father would be because she’d be coming home late, so please wouldn’t someone help her get home, and the tiny woman who cradled the tiny doll in her lap and often looked up at us and said hello.

We’d go to our mother, and she’d always recognize us. She always knew our names, even when she didn’t remember anything else. Her face always changed when she heard our voices. Those were small victories, but we took them.

We’d talk to the nursing staff. They knew their patients as people (our mother’s large vocabulary, which came through even her dementia, always struck them) and cared about them. There was real dedication and love there.

I don’t know how many of them are still alive. My heart hurts when I think about them.

But then, in early March, I got a series of calls. We could come to see her but shouldn’t. Parker was open for visitors, but it wasn’t. There was about a week of dithering — the clear message was don’t go, and we didn’t, because my sister and I are news junkies, and you had to pay only minimal attention to know what was going on.

And then the instructions were clear. You can’t go.

We never saw our mother again.

The last time I saw her is clear in my memory. She was in her wheelchair. I bent down and kissed her and told her that I loved her and that I’d see her next week. But of course I didn’t.

We started getting calls from Parker; she had covid, she didn’t have covid, she was tested, she wasn’t tested. The messages were unclear; our calls weren’t always returned. We could imagine the fear and disorganization. We worried, helplessly. We hung on the reports they’d give us about oxygen levels, as if we had any idea what they meant. We comforted ourselves with memories of her toughness.

We were able to FaceTime with her; Parker was able to send the aides who’d had jobs in such no-longer-necessary programs as recreation to hold iPads up. Our mother was no longer able to see or hear us — that wasn’t covid — but sometimes she’d react at the sound of our voices. The aides who facilitated the calls invariably were sweet. It wasn’t much, but it was all we could get.

And then, last Tuesday, I had a FaceTime call with her that we’d arranged the day before.

My mother was entirely unconscious. My voice did not register with her. She had no idea that I was there; I could watch her, though. She looked peaceful. She was on oxygen, but it got to her through a clear mask that covered the bottom of her face, so she could breathe through both her mouth and her nose. It was easier on her than the tubes up her nose, we were told, and she got more oxygen that way.

But I heard a noise. A loud noise. A voice. A preaching kind of voice.

It was a sermon; fundamentalist, I think. It was all about accepting the body and the blood of the savior. If you accept him, you’re good. If you don’t, you will roast in hell, this stentorian voice bellowed.

It clearly was recorded. It wasn’t somebody in the room; it was radio or television. And did I mention that it was loud? It was very, very loud.

What is that, I asked the aide. It’s coming from the patient in the next bed, she said. Could you ask that it be turned down, I asked. No, she said, and I understood her discomfort. But she did ask, very gently and sweetly, saying nothing about the content of the message but focusing on how very loud it was. The answer to her request was no.

I cried.

My mother died a few hours later.

So I don’t know if she heard the sound or not, and I don’t know if she could have understood the words. But I do know that most likely the last thing that my mother heard was that she’d roast in hell because she did not accept Jesus Christ as her lord and savior. And the last time I saw her, she was being assaulted with that message.

Please note that the name of the institution is Parker Jewish. It no longer has any affiliation with the Jewish community, as far as I can tell, but it does have mainly Jewish governance and many Jewish patients, and it tries — or at least it tried — to provide kosher meals, sedarim, and Jewish services.

I don’t know why this happened. I do know that I wrote to complain — and also to commend the staff for their courage and love and care, which also is true and important. I’m not there. They are. That always will be true — and I got an apology almost immediately. They’d never thought of that problem, I was told; they plan to remedy it. They’re likely to start by separating patients by religion, so if they have to be assaulted by sermons as they die at least they won’t include horrifyingly foreign imagery.

So, on to the funeral.

There are no inside funerals allowed now. They’re all graveside, and mourners are begged to keep them as small as possible. The rules vary by the cemetery; some allow just one person plus the officiant. New York State rules allow up to 10 people, although individual cemeteries are free to allow fewer.

My parents have a plot in West Babylon, way out on the Island, in a cemetery called Beth Moses. It’s part of a vast neighborhood of cemeteries — New Montefiore and Wellwood are connected to it, and there’s a Catholic one across the road — and there’s an industrial park beyond it.

Beth Moses’s website does not say how many people are allowed; when I called, I was told that we could have up to 10, plus the officiant, although that’s not really what the rules say, because they’re not counting, I was told.

There are many very frum communities — I’m assuming from Brooklyn — that use sections of Beth Moses. There are gravestones in those sections that remind me more of cemeteries in Jerusalem than here. The stones are engraved with many many lines of tiny black letters, some spelling out words in Hebrew, some I think in Yiddish. In front of some of the graves you can see the tin boxes that keep candle flames from flickering out; it’s a common sight in Israel, not so much here.

There were many funerals in Beth Moses that day; it was the first day after Pesach, so there were three days worth of pent-up death. There are usually three or four burials a day in Beth David, we were told; that day, there were more than 40.

In the frum section, we saw many groups of black-hatted men standing very close together. The groups were large, everyone stood very close together, and although some of the men (they were all men) wore masks, most did not.

To be straightforward, it was horrifying.

We did it differently.

We decided that there should be three of us there — my sister, Lynn, my brother, Michael, and me. My aunt and my mother were extraordinarily close, and normally Ellen would have been there, but of course normally many other people would have been there as well. We told our aunt that because of how much we love her, we hope she would stay away. She’s in her 80s, and we cannot afford to lose her. She was sad, but she agreed.

So it was the three of us, plus my son-in-law the rabbi, who officiated.

We all wore masks and gloves; I looked at Dave, his profile somehow sharp under the muffle of the mask, looking like a bird of prey on an Egyptian artifact, standing in clear relief against the bright sky, brown ground, and high mounds of landfill far in the background, and at Lynn and Michael, also masked, all of us socially distant from each other. It was surreal.

The rest of the family Zoomed into the funeral, and I held my phone aimed at Dave as he led the short service. Because there was a minyan online, we said kaddish. Dave had brought his own shovel, and we all used it. The dirt thunked.

And then it was over.

We talked briefly and from a distance with the funeral director, who stayed back on the road when we were at the grave. This is very hard, he said. This is a customer-service business, and we cannot offer our customers very much service. You go into this to help people….

We told him that we enormously valued his help, and his courage. Please please stay safe, we said.

Dave had hoped to wait in the car to see the grave filled in, but that wasn’t possible, the funeral director said. With 40 funerals, there would be a long wait until the workers could drive their machine up to our mother’s grave.

My own rabbi, Roly Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, has a brilliant idea for shoveling in the grave. Do what you can at the funeral, he said, but plan on getting together, everyone who would have been there, once all this finally is over, and shovel in the top layer then. We all need closure, and that can provide it. He suggested asking the gravediggers to leave an inch or two of the grave unfilled. That was a nonstarter, the funeral director made clear, but until a stone is up, we think we can bring potting soil and finish what we had to leave undone.

Other rituals went as well. There was no kriah before the service — no one could get close enough to anyone to tear any piece of clothing.

As if to make up for it, on the other end, when we got home (my husband and I are weathering this storm with Dave, our daughter, Miriam, and their two small children, Nava and Judah), we did not wash our hands ritually, using a two-handled cup and the water inside it.

Instead, we took our coats off outside and bagged them, threw the masks and gloves away outside, washed our shoes with Clorox wipes, used hand sanitizer on our hands, went inside, washed our hands even more thoroughly than usual — and that’s very thoroughly — and then changed clothing and threw what we had been wearing right into the wash.

Next, shiva.

We arranged for three of them; our shul, B’nai Jeshurun, and Dave’s, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, sent out links. We also sent them to people who I knew wouldn’t be on other lists, although of course I forgot many people who I love, because it’s really hard to think in any kind of organized way when you’re living in such an odd reality.

And you know what? Zoom shivas work.

They’re not the same as the real thing. There’s nothing like having someone you love hug you. There’s nothing like being surrounded by the real live human bodies of people who care enough to come to your house and talk about the person who now is dead. There’s nothing like being able to have a spontaneous, private conversation.

But we can’t have that now.

What we can have is many people from many parts of your life looking at you from dozens of little boxes on your computer. Yes, it’s weird.

There is one real advantage. People can join shiva from all over. From California, from Chicago, from Israel. Distance doesn’t matter at all.

If you’re Conservative, as we are, or Reform, as Dave is, you can say kaddish online, because online presence counts as a minyan.

And you can look at all those people who care enough to sit online, in a deeply weird way, because they care about you and the person you’ve just lost. All sorts of people from all parts of your life come together — including people whose presence is a surprise and therefore a very real and deep gift — and there is real comfort there, and enough warmth so that you feel it beaming at you from the ether.

I couldn’t do a real shiva. I couldn’t keep it up for seven days. I couldn’t do more than three Zoom shivas. I am sure that other people, who are more self-disciplined and certainly more fully observant, can observe a complete shiva, as I did for Shira and for my father, even in these odd circumstances. For me, both my mother’s death and how to mourn her still are somewhat abstract. But I was able to do some of it, and in these profoundly weird times, there is a great deal of comfort in it.

I hope that everyone who is a mourner and reads this is comforted among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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