CLARKSBURG, Maryland — Anna Grosz made the trek from her bedroom in a Northern Virginia assisted living facility to a window near the front lobby. Outside were her son and granddaughter.
With the help of the staff, she pulled up a chair by the window and got on the phone to speak with them. This was the safest way Grosz could spend time with her family as the novel coronavirus was spreading throughout the United States and claiming the lives of thousands. The outbreak has been especially pronounced at senior communities, where the rates of transmission have been high.
But Grosz has faced seemingly insurmountable adversity before: Born in 1926 in Racşa, Romania, she survived the Holocaust, including almost a year at the Stutthof concentration camp.
Still, according to her son, Andrew, she was acting out of character that day. “She started saying things like, ‘You remember when we did this? You remember when we did that? We had a good time. I’ve always loved you’ —which is something she never said very often to us,” the younger Grosz, 68, told The Times of Israel. “It was a given that she loved us, so I call that ‘death babble.’ She knew she was dying.”
Less than two weeks later, Grosz died of complications from coronavirus — just one day before her 94th birthday.
Yet as her loved ones would soon learn, her long and remarkable life would have to be memorialized in unusual fashion. Grosz’s friends and family held a funeral for her on April 22 at the Garden of Remembrance, a Jewish cemetery in Clarksburg, Maryland.
But, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, the cemetery only allows a maximum of 10 people to attend each service. It lowers the casket immediately, to keep the maintenance staff away from the mourners. And it makes sure every mourner wears a mask and gloves and stands at least six feet apart.
These regulations are part of social-distancing measures that state governments, including Maryland’s, have enacted to stop the spread of coronavirus, which has already killed more than 56,000 Americans.
The Grosz family didn’t opt for an online “Zoom service,” as others have, which allows virtual conferencing technology to connect people at a time when they have to be physically separated. Instead, the Groszes wanted a small and short ceremony, with no technology. They decided to hold off on a larger tribute, filled with eulogies, for another day.
“We decided that we’ll do that at the unveiling,” Andrew Grosz said.
During the funeral, mourners were spread out around a tent that covered the family plot. (Grosz’s late husband, Emory, is buried there.) The rabbi and Grosz children spoke briefly about her life, with an emphasis on her Holocaust survival and later efforts to increase Holocaust awareness.
Something else was notable during the service: Many people were holding their own shovels.
To prevent a possible spread of the virus, the Garden of Remembrance doesn’t want mourners to share shovels when they scoop dirt onto the coffin, a Jewish custom toward the end of the burial service to honor the deceased. So mourners brought their own.
The funeral itself was quick; it lasted a little under 30 minutes. By the time it was over, it seemed like it had hardly began.
“It was a numbing experience,” the younger Grosz said. “It was quite bizarre in comparison to other family funerals that I’ve been to.”
How things have changed
What this reporter witnessed at the Grosz funeral has become the new way of doing business for Glenn Easton, executive director of the Garden of Remembrance.
In the age of social distancing, cemeteries are adapting religious rituals to avoid risk to public health. Simply put, funerals have changed in profound ways even as their numbers have sharply risen.
“We’ve been busy,” Easton told The Times of Israel. “We’ve had an increase in burials. We don’t release information about whether it’s a COVID-19 burial or not. We treat every burial as if it needs to have all the same restrictions. We’re not differentiating. Some of the funeral homes tell us when it’s COVID-19, some don’t. But we’ve certainly had an increase.”
The fact that the Grosz family declined a Zoom funeral is an exception for the Garden of Remembrance. Most families, Easton said, are now choosing to using virtual platforms to allow people to participate in the ceremony even if they can’t be there in person.
That usually means that there’s only a few people physically present. A tripod with a streaming device will be set up before the service so that others can watch the service from their computers or phones at home.
“At times, we only have one or two or three mourners,” Easton said. “People are having funerals electronically, digitally, and globally. The mourner might be at the graveside, the rabbi might be on the phone, and family and friends might be Zooming in.”
Rabbi Bruce Kahn officiated his first Zoom funeral last month.
The rabbi emeritus at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Kahn conducted the burial service remotely for longtime friend and congregant, Linda Katz, who died March 17 of Parkinson’s disease. She was 75.
Only Katz’s three children were at the actual burial at the Clarksburg cemetery. Kahn was in his apartment. Everyone else was streaming the funeral at their home.
For me, this is all just science fiction
To Kahn’s surprise, the ceremony was a success. “It worked very well,” he told The Times of Israel. “My God, when I was ordained, the most advanced piece of equipment at the office was an IBM electric typewriter. For me, this is all just science fiction.”
In fact, he added, the Katz funeral was oddly intimate. When it came time to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, the children said they could hear everyone else’s voices on Zoom, chanting it in near unison. It was almost like a symphony.
“They told me it had a profoundly soothing and healing effect on them,” Kahn said. “All their dread of going through this alone was removed.”
According to Easton, families have been understanding of the restrictions imposed, even if they find them a bit unsettling.
“They’re all adapting rather remarkably,” he said. “I feel for their families, because Jewish bereavement is all about embracing the bereaved and being present — and people have to be present in very different ways right now.”
People have to be present in very different ways right now
At the same time, mourners keep finding meaningful ways to say goodbye under the circumstances.
“We had a funeral the other day where the son brought the shovel that he and his father used when they would plant a garden,” Easton said. “There’s all sorts of new symbolisms that one wouldn’t have expected.”
‘I couldn’t have imagined how she would have died’
Andrew Grosz said he was lucky to hug his mother one last time before she died. After she started showing COVID-19 symptoms last month, she spent a week at a Northern Virginia hospital. Given her age, she was considered at a high risk of dying from the infection.
Grosz, a geologist and geochemist who lives in Herndon, Virginia, was able to acquire personal protective equipment on his own, and the hospital staff allowed him and his daughter to see his mother while she was ill.
“We took a great chance by doing it, but we thought it was worth it,” he said, with a thick Eastern European accent. (Born in Romania, Grosz immigrated to America with his mother, father, and brother in 1964.)
He and his daughter, Diana, spent a half hour with matriarch Anna. By then, though, she was on a morphine drip and was already sedated. She died days later, all alone.
“I couldn’t have imagined how she would have died,” said Grosz, standing near her graveside, shortly after the funeral. “She was such a strong person, an amazingly strong person,” he added.
Anna Grosz’s experience living through the Nazi genocide scarred her immeasurably, he said.
“She came out of a camp — survive is perhaps the appropriate term — but she never fully came out of the camp,” Grosz said. “There were all kinds of emotional aspects to it for her.”
In her later years, Anna told her story widely and became a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Her saga of survival will remain an essential part of her legacy, Grosz said.
And though he believes his mother deserved a bigger sendoff — “she was larger than life” — he suspects she would have appreciated the one she got, given the situation.
“Closure is not the word I would use after living 68 years with my mom,” Grosz said. “There is no closure — this is a forever deal. But I am glad we were able to do what we did. I think she would have liked that.”