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Monday, September 29, 1997

To find a just repose

The Knesset has passed a law permitting secular funerals.
Ruth Sinai discovers why its implementation is being delayed

Less than 24 hours before she passed away, Yael Hessin attended the funeral of a friend in Jerusalem. In conversation with other mourners, she expressed her indignation at the service ? that the body had been carried along the path and lowered into the grave in a shroud, that the cantor had mumbled unintelligible and meaningless phrases. The next day, when she herself suddenly died of cardiac arrest, there was no question in her husband's mind that she would not have this type of funeral. While still alive, Yael had joined the "Menucha Nechona" (Just Repose) organization, which promotes secular burial alternatives, and Eliyahu Hessin arranged for his wife to be buried in a coffin in the cemetery in Kibbutz Nachshon, to the notes of a saxophone, with neither rabbi nor cantor present, as she had wished., Nachshon is one of five kibbutzim offering secular burials, to generate income for the kibbutz. But this type of funeral is expensive ? costing between $8,000 and $10,000 ? and often inconveniently located., "If you want this type of luxury, instead of a funeral in a regular cemetery, you have to pay, just like in any business," says Shimon Malka, spokesman for the Religious Affairs Ministry. But there are those, including the High Court of Justice and the Knesset, who believe that alternative secular burials should not be a business, but rather an option available to every Israeli. The High Court has decided that land should be allocated for this purpose, and last year the Knesset approved a law enabling anyone to be buried in accordance with his beliefs. Since the law was passed, money has not yet been allocated from the Religious Affairs Ministry budget to implement it. The initial proposer of the law, MK Dedi Tzuker (Meretz) has recently appealed to the High Court of Justice to obligate the ministry to do so.

The law, along with the rights granted by previous Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet to four private companies to conduct secular burial services in Israel's four largest cities, has ended the monopoly previously held by the country's 65 burial societies. Secular supporters believed that civil burials would represent a breakthrough in the struggle against religious coercion, while religious advocates of the law, including some rabbis and legislators, hoped that this would solve the problem of the more than 100,000 non-Jewish or doubtfully Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union., Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky MK (Yisrael b'Aliyah), while still head of the Zionist Forum, supported this solution, but his party colleague Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein, an observant Jew, said he did not want the immigrants to be set apart from other Israelis and buried in separate cemeteries. Negotiations began with the Chief Rabbinate, and last April it was agreed that non-Jews and those whose Judaism was in doubt would be buried in special sections in existing cemeteries. , Opponents of this solution claim that it not only discriminates between Israel and immigrants, but attaches a stigma to immigrants, placing their Jewishness in question. Alternative cemeteries, on the other hand, are open to anyone who considers himself Jewish. The decision reached by the Chief Rabbinate together with Edelstein was forced on the Religious Affairs Ministry and on recalcitrant burial societies, but has yet to be implemented. , This came to light after the tragic death of Grigori Pesachovic, killed in the Mahane Yehuda bombing. Not halachically Jewish, his parents requested that he be buried without a religious ceremony. After four days of searching, the Religious Affairs Ministry purchased a plot for him at considerable expense in the Baha'i section of the Jerusalem cemetery. The Finance Ministry is to transfer NIS 3 million for the allocation of "non-Jewish and doubtful" burials in regular cemeteries to the Religious Affairs Ministry, says Malka., Dedi Tzuker has asked Edelstein to delay implementation of the decision until after the High Court process has run its course, because he believes that the court might instruct the minister to first implement the existing law of alternative burials. Menucha Nechona, however, is concerned that the new recommendation will bury the alternative burial proposal. This was hinted at by the Religious Affairs Ministry, whose spokesman explained that because of budget constraints, the ministry prefers to wait and see what the demand will be for alternative burials., A feasibility study commissioned under the previous Labor government found that 10 percent of Israelis are interested in alternative burial options, while Prof. Yosef Sarid of Haifa University found that 44 percent of residents in the Haifa area are interested. In any case, there are large profits to be made, says Eyal Erlich, the contractor who is to conduct the alternative burials in the Haifa area. Erlich asserts that the opposition from the religious establishment is no different to that of any other monopoly and has nothing to do with ideology. "The public will benefit from the competition because service will improve," he says. Rabbis are clearly concerned about losing their hold on the religious life of every Jewish Israeli citizen. , Benny Hassa, administrative director of the Haifa burial society, denies that financial considerations are involved, and says that he has no problem with alternative cemeteries, but that they are unnecessary because in most cases solutions can be found in existing cemeteries, including playing music during funerals and even burial in a coffin, perhaps with plastic netting on the bottom. He says that there is no imperative in having a rabbi present or rending mourners' garments., However, not all burial societies are this liberal. "I don't trust them," says Professor Ben-Zion Hochstadt, one of the founders of Menucha Nechona. "They are capable of saying one thing and doing another." Hochstadt says that the ceremony Menucha Nechona offers includes readings from Bialik, the use of a coffin, burial in regular clothing and with make-up, and musical accompaniment. Very few people realize, he explains, that the Kaddish prayer has nothing at all to do with the deceased, but only glorifies God. "To bury someone who has led a secular lifestyle with the Kaddish and El Maleh Rahamim is a violation of the deceased." An Israeli Burial Lexicon
The Religious Affairs Ministry calls those whose Jewishness is doubtful, or who are not halachically Jewish, "devoid of religion". "I am not devoid of anything. I am simply an atheist," says Hochstadt. Burial sections for people "devoid of religion" will be established within all major cemeteries. Burials will be held with or without a religious ceremony, and Jews married to non-Jews can be interred in these sections, as long as they have requested it in writing. Such burial sections already exist in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, though the fact is not made public.

Alternative ? civil, secular or other ? cemeteries will have sections for Conservative and Reform Jews and for mixed couples. Funerals will be conducted with or without a religious ceremony, and with a coffin if so desired. The National Insurance Institute will cover the basic costs, with any extras paid for by the family. According to the decision of the High Court, the Israel Lands Administration will allocate space in Haifa and Be'er Sheva.

Work in Be'er Sheva on the establishment of an alternative burial site is being held up by the Religious Affairs ministry, according to Pinhas Vardin, Chairman of Menucha Nechona in Be'er Sheva and a leader of the Conservative movement in Israel. "They say that they are waiting for authorization or that the plans have gotten lost. They keep lying to us." The Religious Affairs Ministry says that the moment the contractor has finished the work, he will be paid. "There is no need for authorization. There is a signed contract.

©Copy Right, HA'ARTEZ Magazine (Israel)

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