customs/rituals, death, death rituals, religion

Share the Vigil

In NYC, white refrigerated trucks hold corpses, victims of the COVID-19 virus.

I don’t know about you, but I feel so helpless during this Covid-19 outbreak. I am horrified by the accelerating numbers of infections and deaths. Besides trying to keep myself healthy and avoid spreading the virus, what can I do to help?

Physical limitations prevent me from volunteering, for example, at food banks. I have donated money to hard-hit communities, like the near-by Navajo Nation and to more local charities. But writing a check is not enough.

My solution arrived in the form of a recent email from Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips. Over ten years ago, I interviewed her for a book I co-authored (with Fredda Wasserman) called Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. (New York: Demos, 2010.)

She expanded my knowledge about the Jewish tradition of preparing bodies for burial. Now she is involved with an interfaith organization that spiritually stays with the rapidly accumulating bodies in New York, and elsewhere in the world, until they are finally laid to rest.

Sandler-Phillips participates in an interfaith organization called, Sharing a Vigil for the COVID-19 Dead. Volunteers take shifts to focus on the dead while saying prayers, reciting poems, reading literature, playing music, or even remaining silent. This remote vigil-keeping is a way to bear witness and extend ultimate kindness to ALL dead – near and far, whether named or unknown.

When the Rabbi asked for volunteers, I signed up. I told her that every night in Las Cruces, between 11 p.m. until midnight, I would sing songs and accompany myself on the ukulele, while concentrating on the bodies elsewhere. Given the dire predictions about second waves of infection, this job will no doubt last for months, even longer.

Ordinarily, around 10:30 p.m., I am either at my computer in my office or streaming TV in the living room. I turn off the electronics and enter my bedroom for nightly ablutions before changing into my bedclothes. When I purchased the house, I loved having a reading nook inside the master bedroom. Years ago, I converted that space into a music nook that is ideal for my new endeavor, an improvised sanctuary.

Shortly before 11 p.m., I tune my ukulele and adjust the music stand holding a book of ukulele tunes, one for each day. Then at precisely 11 p.m., I begin to sing and play appropriate tunes. (I passed on Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey?) While singing and playing, I visually focus on a sight that will never leave me — in New York City, large white refrigerated trucks, temporary morgues, that are crammed with bodies awaiting their final disposition. The thought of these lonely crowded bodies fills me with great sadness.

For one hour, I sing and play songs on my ukulele, keeping company with the bodies of all faiths as well as no faith. My house is quiet: the neighborhood has mostly gone to sleep; and there I sit unselfconsciously singing.

Whereas in the past, when I entered my bedroom at night, I immediately turned on the TV listening to a wrap-up of the day’s news followed by watching one of the late-night TV comedians.

However, my new routine has brought surprises. When I enter my bedroom, I can no longer turn on the TV.  And after I am finished at midnight, once more, I can no longer turn on the TV. Somehow, this new late night routine has become sanctified, and I cannot pollute it with gags and nonsense. It’s as if I have divided my house into new zones: the sacred and the profane.

This new and moving experience satisfies my need to meaningfully participate in one of the most horrendous events of a lifetime.



Norine Dresser is a folklorist who strongly disagrees with those who want to end the corona virus lockdown and reopen businesses prematurely.

For more information about Sharing the Vigil, visit