An Israeli man grieves over the grave of a loved one at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
An Israeli man grieves over the grave of a loved one at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
PIC: AFP

Air travel to Israel has come to a near standstill due to coronavirus restrictions, but one type of voyage still endures: the final journey of Jews wishing to be buried in Israel.

For centuries, Jews have sought to be interred in the Holy Land, going to great lengths to secure their final resting place in the land of their biblical forefathers. Today, not even a once-in-a-century pandemic is halting this ancient last wish.

"The Land of Israel is a very special place for Jewish people to be buried," said Rabbi Michoel Fletcher, who facilitates purchases of burial plots in Israel for Jews from abroad.

"The flights have been reduced heavily, but there are cargo flights. So it may take a bit longer, but we are getting people coming in." Despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus, families, the aviation industry and health workers are finding ways to keep the deceased flying in - chartering private planes, adding cargo flights and striking deals with handling companies. Israel's Foreign Ministry said 300 bodies, including many COVID-19 victims, have been flown in for burial since February.

During that time, Israel's typically bustling Ben-Gurion International airport has become a ghost town, with only a few hundred passengers arriving on a handful of flights each week.

Jews have long aspired to be buried in the Holy Land. The biblical forefather Jacob and his son Joseph both requested to be buried in the Promised Land after having died in Egypt. Some Jews believe that being buried in the Holy Land grants atonement for sins or will make resurrection easier when the Messiah comes.

Israel has managed to keep the coronavirus crisis largely in check, and though it has reported 225 deaths out of more than 16,100 cases, it has not seen hospitals or morgues overwhelmed. More than half of the reported cases in Israel have recovered.

The virus causes mild to moderate flu-like symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.

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