How funerals, rites of passage are affected by coronavirus outbreak

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

As the concern over coronavirus grows, many religious institutions are limiting contact in pre-planned events, funerals and traditional customs that aren't avoidable. 

For instance, in a letter to priests Friday, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron wrote that funerals may proceed as scheduled but may not exceed 100 people in the church at one time and instructed followers to maintain "social distancing." 

"If this proves to be impossible or unduly difficult to ensure, funerals should be postponed until a later date," he said. "Communion will not be distributed to the faithful at a funeral Mass during this time. Weddings should follow the same precautions."

He added that baptisms may proceed outside of Mass following the same measures.

"New water blessed in the ritual should be used for baptisms during this time. As was stated earlier, all holy fonts are to remain empty," he said. "Confirmations also have been postponed during this period. First Communions are generally after Easter."

Various faiths in Michigan have similarly taken dramatic measures against the coronavirus by halting services and gatherings and instructing devout followers to pray at home or online. 

Some leaders say becoming accustomed to no handshakes, hugs or close contact in the pews will challenge the faithful.

Three people who did not want to be identified, walk away from the locked, front doors of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn Friday.

In the Islamic faith, funerals are considered a community event with group prayers that can last hours. An important funeral rite is that the burial take place as quickly as possible, usually 24 to 48 hours after death. There is often no viewing, wake or visitation. Immediately after death, the body is washed and covered with a sheet by family members and then taken to the mosque for a funeral.

Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini, founder and leader of the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights, says funerals for the Muslim faith will be difficult and they are trying to accommodate anyone in need.

"Funerals, we can not avoid it. Death is not something that's in your hand and although we have closed our mosque for the rest of the month, we are open to hosting any funeral," he said. "We are advising only family members to attend and checking with state regulations on the medical guidelines of the ritual washing of the body. The washing is only open to immediate family members and this way, we can ensure the safety of the community during their grief."

Similarly at the Islamic Center of America, the largest mosque in the nation located in Dearborn, have undergone deep cleaning and sanitizing of its washrooms to accommodate funerals, limited only to immediate family. 

"The hall typically hosts a maximum of 750 people, but we're only going to be opening the small hall for funerals keeping it just for close family, siblings and parents, a limit of 10-15 people," a mosque spokeswoman said. "We're only allowing one or two, the spouse or sibling to join our washroom in the basement at this time."

As he was heading to conduct a Muslim wedding ceremony Friday, Al-Qazwini said many weddings are being canceled. 

"The wedding I’m heading to is very small, less than 10 people and we already issued guidelines and instructions for our community including washing hands, keeping distance between people to ensure the safety of the community. We are conducting marriages but not celebratory weddings."

During the typical Muslim ceremony, the Imam sits between the bride and groom to exchange vows and pray with the immediate family. Al-Qazwini said he’s being cautious as he meets with families but is not panicking and “moving on in life as usual.”

► More: Houses of worship say their prayers to in-person services

► More:Tracking Michigan's confirmed coronavirus cases 

Personal protection instructions are posted on the office doors to the Islamic Center of America Friday afternoon.

Rabbi Mark Miller, the senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, said the temple began taking precautions against the coronavirus, including regular cleanings and social distancing about a week ago. While the synagogue has not been closed, the temple has stopped all in-person and group events.

"We’re certainly trying to continue maintaining our community and gathering people together for important moments, but we will not be doing it in person," he said. "The major exception to that is life cycle events like weddings and funerals."

He said events like baby-naming ceremonies and funerals will be held privately for families.

"A family could still do one of those events with us, with just the family," Miller said. "And we will livestream it so they can invite their friends or people who would like to see it."

Rabbi Michael Moskowitz warms up before the start of a Friday night service at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield Township on Friday. Due to concerns about the coronavirus, the temple did not allow parishioners to attend and streamed the service over the internet instead.

Miller also said that is the temple’s general policy, but when "our families have a special event we will evaluate each event on a case by case basis."

“We’ll work with each one directly to make sure we can balance our strong desire to maintain public health and to do our part to ensure we stop the spread of COVID-19,” the rabbi said. “At the same time, we want balance that with our need to still be a community that celebrates important moments together and supports each other in difficult times.”

Elyse and Rob Cohen have been planning their daughter, Ava's bat mitzvah for two years and was planned for March 21 before they decided to postpone to June 13. After schools in Michigan closed, the family called the rabbi and said they didn't know what to do or where to begin.

"He said a private family event was an option and ultimately, my daughter wanted family and friends to be there," said Elyse Cohen, from Huntington Woods. "It all started with my brother who lives in Atlanta. I saw they were calling and answered and immediately said 'are you coming?' When he said no, it felt very real and we started crying, trying to convince ourselves that these last two years of planning could still work somehow,"

The Cohens, who attend Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield Township, said they didn't think the virus would escalate as quickly as it did and they're devastated.

"My daughter wants them there and I wanted her to have everything, every minute she deserves. It's definitely been a big, huge financial and emotional commitment. She's been practicing every single day," Elyse Cohen said. "In your head, you plan on something, a once in a lifetime moment, and overnight everything has changed. It's devastating but we're so thankful to find another date and lucked out that every vendor agreed to a date change."

As a result of the outbreak, Temple Beth El's regular worship services Friday night and Saturday morning will still be held and livestreamed online at

ISKCON Detroit, located inside the Fisher Mansion in Detroit, said it is suspending the Sunday program, feasts and special events, although the regular services continue and have not canceled its yearly festival.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed.