Amid Coronavirus, Israel Modifies Funeral Rituals for First Victim

Jerusalem (The Washington Post) —
A man stands near the body of Holocaust survivor Aryeh Even, 88, and the first man to die in Israel from the Coronavirus epidemic, at the Har HaMenuchot Cemetery in Jerusalem, early on March 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Aryeh Even was just a teenager when he arrived alone in Israel from war-ravaged Hungary, a survivor of the Holocaust who built his life and family as the Jewish state was building itself. On Sunday, Israel mourned the 88-year-old as its first victim of the coronavirus, grieving with rituals adapted to the pandemic that killed him.

Even’s body was carried to the cemetery by a chevrah kadishah in biohazard gear, photographs of the private ceremony show. The funeral was limited to 20 mourners, each keeping at least six feet apart from the next. The nurse who cared for Even in his final days apologized on social media that his body could not be washed in the ritual way, as antiviral safety protocols now trump tradition.

“We are sorry he passed his last days and moments at a time when his family members were prevented from being by his side,” Even’s family – four children and 18 grandchildren – said in a statement, according to the Times of Israel. He was, they said, “a dear and beloved man, living a full life, devoted to his family, a strong man until the end.”

Israel has reported 945 coronavirus infections. Even was the first to die; the Ministry of Health said more than 15 other cases remained critical. The government has sealed the country’s borders and ordered its 8.7 million residents to remain in their homes for all but essential activity.

Israel, which had one of the highest hospital occupancy rates among developed countries before the outbreak, is straining to keep the pandemic from overwhelming its supply of practitioners and equipment. More than 1,700 doctors and nurses are in quarantine over possible exposure to the virus, the health ministry said Saturday. More than 40 have tested positive for the virus.

Even was born in Budapest. In 1941, his father was taken to a Hungarian army labor camp and then to the Mauthausen concentration camp, according to Yad Veshem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and research center. Even, his mother and brother were evicted from the family home. They found shelter in a house protected by Swiss diplomats; they changed locations in darkness. The next day, his grandfather was shot, records show; his body was dumped in the Danube.

Even eventually moved to Israel with help from a Jewish youth immigration group. He went on to a career as a civil servant who was posted to a succession of overseas missions with wife, Yona, the daily Ha’aretz reported. She survives him.

Long retired, Even was one of at least six residents of an assisted-living facility in Jerusalem who might have contracted the virus from an infected social worker, The Jerusalem Post reported. The manager of the facility said the remaining residents were isolating in their apartments.

Even was taken last week to a special coronavirus treatment ward at the city’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center. He suffered underlying health conditions, according to media reports, and was in serious condition.

The virus is known to be especially dangerous to older people and those with underlying health problems.

Rachel Gemara, an oncology nurse who volunteered to treat Even and other covid-19 patients in the ward, described the difficulties of delivering to care to the infected to the Jewish Journal. Most treatments are delivered remotely, she said; practitioners stay behind protective shields. Much of the communication is by video.

Gemara, 32, said the younger, healthier patients in the 20-bed ward have helped care for the older, more seriously affected ones, fluffing their pillows, adjusting their oxygen masks, helping them call their families.

“They’re angels,” Gemara said. “It’s heartwarming to watch.”

The 40 staffers in the ward are volunteers, she said.

The Canadian-born Gemara detailed new protocols for the handling of Covid-19 fatalities to curtail the further spread of the infection in a social media post.

But despite the sterile setting, she said, Even’s final hours Friday night were a time of touching compassion.

“In the unit, we were in awe as we watched the other patients care for you,” she wrote. “They so badly did not want you ever to feel alone.”

Two patients were with Even in his last moment, she said. They placed their hands on his eyes and said Shema Yisroel, a prayer said at the end of life.

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