Entrance to the Home of Eternity cemetery in Oakland. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Entrance to the Home of Eternity cemetery in Oakland. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Mourners no longer allowed graveside at Sinai Memorial Chapel funerals due to coronavirus fears

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Sinai Memorial Chapel, which coordinates Jewish burials all over Northern California, has tightened restrictions on who can attend funerals as an additional precaution against the coronavirus.

As of April 3, no loved ones are allowed to stand graveside. The only people who can be present at funerals managed by Sinai are the officiant, the funeral director and cemetery staff. Previously during the pandemic, Sinai was allowing up to 10 people to attend and enforcing physical distancing of 6 feet.

Sinai operates three cemeteries and handles burials at others.

Though most cemeteries in the area been continuing to follow health officials’ suggestions of no more than 10 people at a funeral, Sinai burials have adopted the more stringent restrictions.

“If a family insists on attending, they must remain in their car until all staff have left the area,” said Sam Salkin, Sinai’s executive director. “Depending on the location within the cemetery, the clergy may be able to position themselves between the car and the graveside so that the family can hear them.”

Salkin made the decision to tighten restrictions on who can attend funerals “out of an abundance of caution,” he said. “If our staff or cemetery staff get sick, we can’t serve the public. So that’s our priority.”

The announcement of the new rule was sent to more than 200 rabbis in Northern California, and as of April 6, Salkin had heard back from about 50 of them. “They run the spectrum from Chabad and Orthodox to Renewal, and they are categorically supportive,” he said.

RELATED: Death during a pandemic

Rabbi Jacob Traub of San Francisco conducted the first funeral under the new rules, for his longtime friend Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, who served as president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California for 18 years.

“There were one or two people in a car,” said Traub, the Orthodox spiritual leader at Adath Israel Congregation in San Francisco for some 40 years. “I positioned myself about 20 feet from the grave, and the funeral director was there, about 20 feet in the other direction, and that was pretty much it. It was a very strange situation, but hopefully only for a short time.”

Meanwhile, a consortium of three adjacent Jewish cemeteries in Colma has closed its cemeteries to visitors because a staff member was exposed to someone with the coronavirus (although the staff member reportedly did not have symptoms as of April 6).

“I think we’re the only cemeteries in Colma closed for visitation,” said Susan Solomon, executive director of the consortium. “But we’re closed because of the exposure to the virus on our staff.” The plan is to reopen on April 14 or 15, she said.

Like most other cemeteries, the three that Solomon manages — Hills of Eternity, Home of Peace and Salem — allow 10 mourners at a time, but will follow Sinai’s rules when hosting funerals managed by Sinai.

Jewish cemeteries and funeral homes around the country are taking a variety of approaches, according to Salkin.

“Some cemeteries are permitting one person from the family. There are others that are just doing video streaming or recording,” he said.

He also noted that Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, which has two Jewish sections, is closed except for funerals and is allowing 10 mourners per funeral plus clergy.

David A.M. Wilensky
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
J. The Jewish News of Northern California Staff Headshots.
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky