Feldman Mortuary, now in its 86th year of service to Denver’s Jewish community, has completed renovations that enhance intimacy and comfort for families struggling with one of life’s most painful moments.
In 2020, Jim Cohen, a fourth-generation member of the family that opened Denver’s first Jewish mortuary in 1936, began upgrading the stately building at 1673 York Street that has prepared Jews for their final journey since 1939.
“The reason we did this was to stay current for the community,” says Cohen, Feldman’s president, “The community expects this of us.”
The construction process, which eventually took between eight months to a year to complete, launched in early 2020. “We just started to swing hammers and boom, we got hit by the pandemic,” he says.
In March, April and part of May, 2020, due to the pandemic restrictions, Feldman ceased holding funeral services in-house, as did all synagogues. Burials were limited to immediate family members only. It was a lonely, isolated time that few will forget.
Feldman’s care team officed across the street during the construction and was able to continue to care for the deceased by walking over to 1673 York. Service continued uninterrupted and renovations progressed.
Feldman’s goal was to create a bright, open and airy space for client-families. Offices are arranged like dining rooms, where they can gather around a table. Screens allow for family members unable to attend the arrangement process to participate.
“Our décor creates a more comfortable environment for people,” says Cohen. “Despite the sadness of loss, many families also want to celebrate the life of their loved one.”
While streaming technology enabled family and friends to view services at the height of COVID, it existed prior to the pandemic. It was free then as now. Anyone may choose to stream from their home, and rabbis as far away as Israel are able speak directly to mourners.
The care center, where the preparation of the deceased occurs, is also updated and upgraded. With a new ventilation system, the entire area has gone through intensive cleanliness and sterilization procedures. The casket room, which formerly displayed entire caskets, now shows only a portion to lessen the initial impact.
The York Street building itself, constructed in 1917, was also revamped. For instance, modern wiring replaced cloth-covered wires found in certain places.
Feldman’s staff has also benefitted. The addition of larger work stations, which simultaneously display multiple funeral records, give directors “room to breathe and interact with one another without being on top of each other.”
When Samuel Feldman opened Feldman Mortuary at 1452 Tremont in 1936, he restored Jewish burial practices for pioneers, their descendants and future generations.
Prior to Feldman’s, Denver’s Orthodox community cared for dying loved ones and held services at home, but still needed outside help transporting them to the cemetery. Other Jews had to rely on non-Jewish funeral homes for arrangements, transport and burial.
Those were the days of traveling coaches (also called hearses) that navigated dusty roads to bring the deceased to their respective resting places.
Sam Feldman realized that the Jewish community needed a dedicated funeral home where Jews cared for the deceased in accordance with their tradition. Feldman’s became known as “the only Jewish hearse in Denver.”
While Feldman’s untimely death could have put an end to the mortuary, successive generations of the family carried it to where it is today.
Aaron Cohen and his wife Dorothy Feldman Cohen, was who Sam and Sadie Feldman’s only child,assumed the mantle. For the next 41 years, Aaron Cohen ran Feldman with Dorothy by his side.
In 1939, the couple moved the funeral home to its current location, and Aaron Cohen adapted the building to accommodate a room for tahara (ritual cleansing) and a shomer (guardian of the dead).
Until her death in 2012 at age 96, Dorothy Cohen was the irrefutable memory source for names, faces, families and stories.
Steve Cohen, one of Aaron and Dorothy’s three children, succeeded his father as president and owner of Feldman Mortuary in 1980. He diligently continued at his post for 25 years until he retired.
Jim Cohen, Steve’s son and the fourth member of the Feldman-Cohen family to preside over the mortuary, entered the business in 1995 and took over as president in 2003.
In 2022, although the vast majority of Denver Jews choose traditional Jewish burials for both loved ones and themselves, Feldman offers fire cremation, water cremation, and biological human composting.
“The Jewish community has a relatively low cremation rate compared to the non-Jewish community,” Cohen says.
“Cremations for non-Jews hover between 67% and 72% of all deaths, while the Jewish community is right around 12% to 18%, depending on the year. Our team of directors is trained to discuss these options.”
The state legislature legalized alkaline hydrolysis (water cremation) in 2011 and natural organic reduction (human composting) in 2021, both falling under the moniker of “green burial.”
Cohen, aware of the younger generation’s rising interest in water cremation (far gentler than fire cremation) and human composting, admits he has mixed feelings about these practices.
He notes that Jews have been doing “green” burials for 5,783 years, in which the body is wrapped in a simple shroud, not fancy clothes, is not embalmed with chemicals, and simple all-wooden caskets are buried in the ground.
“Jews know what green burial is,” Cohen says. “The rest of society is just finally catching on to its benefits.
The acceptance of cremation by water and composting is a great shift in our industry because they provide alternatives to gruesome and violent fire cremations.”
However, the fact that these alternatives to traditional Jewish burial dispense with returning the body to the earth gives him pause.
“I still struggle with this because there is such value, not only in the care and respect of this image of G-d, but having a place to visit loved ones for closure,” he says. “That monument in the cemetery comforts us and helps us feel like someone is there. We know they are not there. We can argue that part of their soul is there. We don’t know. But there is something so emotional about visiting a cemetery, whether it’s once every 10 years, once a year or once a day. Everyone does it differently. But you have somewhere to go and reflect.”
While it feels like Denver Jewry is losing its most beloved members, Cohen says the actual numbers are steady. “The notices are flowing in but we are not any busier than before,” he says. “It’s just that more of these names are familiar to us because we grew with this generation.”
Baby boomers. Organizational and religious leaders. Torah study companions. Dear friends.
Cohen says the next seven to 10 years, when his friends’ parents will begin passing away, will be the most difficult for him personally. “I grew up in their homes. They made us lunch, or I was the little kid they drove around. It’s very hard for me emotionally.
“At the same time, it’s very rewarding for me to serve these people; I’m someone they know and trust.”
Cohen has grown into his challenging position as a funeral director.
“At that time I joined Feldman’s, I was so young,” he says. “I was there to provide a service. I needed to make sure that the hearse was washed and the lawn was mowed.
“Although I still do this, the ‘why’ has changed from completing the task in front of me to the entire memorial experience we’re providing. I focus more on the emotional and psychological impact of grief.
“Now it’s really about touching the family and connecting with them. It’s no longer a just a job.”
A witness to countless farewells sealed by Jewish tradition, Cohen admits that the hardest task facing a mourner is watching the slow lowering of the casket into the ground and shoveling dirt upon it.
That pain, and the subsequent closure it brings, are prerequisites for healing. And grief that is not addressed “is a real problem in the future,” he says. “Many people don’t realize this until later. By then, it’s often too late.”
Cohen says that his father Steve, now 82, still views himself as a caregiver. For him, deaths are not casual mental notations of “who,” “when” and “how.” He remembers them from high school or other times, and the care he provided to their grieving families.
“There’s always that human connection,” Cohen says. “I don’t think you retire from being a funeral director. You just retire from working as a funeral director.”