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Strict new protocols in place for funerals at GTA cemeteries

Memorial Garden in Pardes Shalom Cemetery

Toronto Hebrew Memorial Parks (THMP), which operates the two largest Jewish cemeteries in the Greater Toronto Area, has instituted new policies related to the COVID-19 virus.

Effective March 25, 14 new directives will guide burials and mourners at Pardes Shalom and Pardes Chaim, both located in Vaughan, Ont.

In a statement posted on its website, THMP said the gates of its cemeteries will be locked and will only be opened by its staff, and only to permit entry for scheduled graveside funerals.

The new protocols are:

• If someone has died from COVID-19 or is strongly suspected to have died from it, his/her burial will be carried out with only clergy and cemetery and funeral chapel staff in attendance. “To be clear,” THMP’s statement said, “anyone exposed to that deceased person may not attend the graveside service, and they will not be permitted on our cemetery grounds. Failure to comply with this directive will result in immediate summonsing of the police as a public and health emergency situation, and criminal charges shall be laid.”

• The only exception to the above will be the case in which a particular family member or representative(s) of the bereaved family presents the funeral chapel and the cemetery administration with a letter, signed by an Ontario licensed physician who was involved in the care of the deceased leading up to his/her death, that certifies that the proposed attendee is not someone who has a quarantine obligation pursuant to the government of Ontario or other legislated COVID-19 protocols.

• The funeral chapel must prepare a deceased person who has died of COVID-19 or is strongly suspected to have died of COVID-19 with the required protocols, including the double wrapping of the deceased in plastic before the sealing of the casket.

• Graveside funerals for non-COVID-19-related deaths will be limited to 20 people, excluding clergy and funeral chapel staff.

• Individuals attending graveside funerals must remain in their vehicles until they are instructed by THMP cemetery staff and/or funeral chapel staff.

• Individuals at the service must stand at least six feet from the grave, and at least six feet apart from each other.

• Individuals at the service must sign a register and provide contact information should tracing of infection become necessary.

• Funeral directors/assistants shall wait until the casket is lowered and THMP cemetery staff have removed the lowering device and have created a social distance of at least six feet from the grave before allowing individuals to approach the grave.

• Funeral directors/assistants will direct families to create a social distance at graveside of at least six feet from one another and will use best efforts to remind families during the service. At all times, visitors and funeral chapel staff must always remain at least six feet away from THMP cemetery staff.

• Only two shovels will be provided to enable attending clergy and one family member (please consult with your clergy to determine who that should be according to halakhah) to throw dirt onto the casket. Once the top surface of only the casket is covered with a layer of dirt, attendees will be expected to complete the service, return to their vehicles and leave the cemetery, after which cemetery staff will complete the filling of the grave. There is to be no passing of shovels. We are expecting that the total attendance time within the cemetery grounds for any graveside funeral will be 30 minutes.

• All pallbearers must wear gloves and anyone who handles the cemetery’s shovels must also wear gloves.

• No unveilings or grave visitations will be permitted until further notice, as these are not considered to be essential attendances in the current circumstances.

• The cemetery building will be closed to the public, including the public washrooms.

• To mitigate risk of transmission, THMP will not provide any washing cups or water at the outdoor hand washing stations at the cemeteries. Visitors should bring their own water for ritual hand washing after their visits.

The new protocols were devised in consultation with cemetery colleagues and lay leaders, and were reviewed by the rabbinate, THMP executive director Howard Mammon told The CJN via email. “There has been a lot of deliberation regarding the protocols given the essential nature of our operations and the Ontario government’s mandates to the bereavement sector,” Mammon noted.

He added that THMP shares the same protocols with Bathurst Lawn Memorial Park, Beth Tzedec Memorial Park, Mount Sinai Memorial Park and the cemeteries Shaarei Shomayim Congregation operates at Bathurst Lawn, Mount Sinai and on McCowan Road.

On March 20, the Toronto Board of Rabbis issued its guidelines for funerals and shivah observance. They include:

• All funerals should be private and by family invitation only.

• Attendance should be limited to the innermost circle of loved ones only, ideally solely the primary mourners.

• Funerals should be graveside only.

• Anyone experiencing the following symptoms should not attend a funeral or public gathering: fever, cough, sore throat or other flu-like symptoms; contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19; or symptoms upon return from outside the country evident within two weeks.

• Shivahs should be private and those wishing to offer their condolences should do so by phone or other means of communication.