The ITIM religious rights advocacy group in a new report criticized the Religious Services Ministry for failing to compel burial societies to allow parents of a stillborn infant to participate in its burial.

Burial societies in Israel generally prevent families from attending or participating in the burial of a stillborn child or one who dies within 30 days of birth, and also refuse to tell families where the infants are buried in most cases.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, said that it was crucial that bereaved families of stillborn infants or those who die within 30 days of birth are provided with clear information about their rights in such circumstances.

“Families at such vulnerable times need to know their full rights for expressing their grief in a way that is meaningful for them,” Farber said. “Allowing grieving families to know where their child is buried most certainly does not contradict Jewish tradition, and in the modern world enabling families to express their grief while at the same time encouraging them to look forward represents strong Jewish and halachic values.”

“Families who would like to be present at the funeral should be permitted to do so.

In this issue, the law regarding the funeral of a nafel [stillborn] is the same as that of a funeral for an adult,” the Religious Services Ministry said in an official response to questions from The Jerusalem Post.

The ministry did not provide an answer as to whether it would specifically instruct burial societies to adhere to the law in this regard.

According to Jewish law, parents of a stillborn baby or a baby who died during the first 30 days of its life are not obligated to observe the normal mourning rituals such as the funeral procession and the recital of specific mourning prayers. Parents may choose to adopt some of these rites even though it is not the general custom.

In addition to these laws, a custom arose in which the bereaved parents and families would not participate in or attend the infant’s funeral.

In most instances, parents of the infant sign a form authorizing the hospital to deal with the burial arrangements. The hospital then contacts a burial society, usually one that specializes in dealing with stillborns, which then takes the nafel to be buried. The burial societies do not permit the parents to be present, the place of burial is not made known and the family is not permitted to erect a gravestone.

One family that recently sought to be present at the burial of their stillborn daughter was first told by a burial society that it was not the custom to attend the burial and they would not agree to conduct the burial in the presence of the parents.

ITIM informed the family that some societies would allow their attendance at the burial. The family contacted six other burial societies who refused their request before speaking to a society of the Yemenite community in Jerusalem that agreed to perform the burial with the family present, without hesitation.

“It was very important to us to be able to be at the funeral and important as well to be able to visit the grave in the future,” said Mark, whose wife, Sarah, gave birth to the stillborn infant in February. “We named her Shira and she is still a part of our family and a big part of lives. It would have been very hurtful for us had we not been able to be at the burial. My wife carried her for nine months, we were looking forward to her, our first child, and so we didn’t just want to walk away.”

One burial society that the family contacted told them that it was for the good of the parents that they do not attend the funeral. “Who do they think they are to decide for us?” asked Mark. “People in this situation should not be told what is and is not good for them.”

“Being present at the burial is incredibly important psychologically for the mourning process. The Religious Services Ministry needs to instruct burial societies that parents have the democratic right to a burial in which they are present and that the societies have to enable this,” said a grandparent of the baby.

The family arranged for a minyan to be present at the burial, recited the Kaddish prayer and sat the shiva mourning period for two and a half days.

In another case, Shoshi Keren from Jerusalem gave birth to twins, one of whom was stillborn. She wanted to attend the burial of her stillborn son but the burial society told her that it was not possible. Having received the same advice from a rabbi she knew, Keren signed the hospital’s burial certificate.

Not being aware of other options, as well as suffering emotionally from the loss of one of her babies, she did not press the matter further. The infant was buried and Keren was not informed of the grave’s location.

She subsequently decided she wanted to visit the grave but the burial society refused to tell her where her child was buried. Keren learned about ITIM a year after she had given birth and contacted them. ITIM persuaded the burial society to tell her where the grave was and allow her to visit, which they then did, provided she would not divulge to anyone the location of the grave.

Keren’s son was not buried in an individual plot but alongside other stillborn children.

“I could have been saved a lot of pain if the hospital would have informed me that private burial is possible and which burial societies would do it,” said Keren.

“As well as the trauma of giving birth to a stillborn baby we also had to deal with our healthy child. It’s not easy to go through this. We were confused, and we also wanted to do the right thing according to Jewish law, we just didn’t know that there are different opinions on the issue and so we would have been saved this struggle had we been made aware of the correct information,” she said.

Keren added: “For me, visiting the grave was a very important part of coping with the loss and for my emotional wellbeing.”

Elazara Gelbstein, the director of a Jerusalem burial society defended the prevailing custom, saying that it was derived from the oral tradition and binding.

“If parents saw how we conduct these funerals they would be completely satisfied. We do it with a great deal of respect and in accordance with the custom. If parents want to be present then they can go to another burial society,” Gelbstein said.

“Even if it seems like this is not a pleasant custom, it’s actually for the families’ benefit that they get over the trauma quicker. It is for the good of the parents.”

Avraham Malachi, the director of the Yemenite burial society that conducted the funeral for Mark and Sarah’s daughter said that he has no opposition to the parents participating if they so wish.

“If it helps put the family at ease and reduces their trauma then we will do it” he said. “It is very hard for a women to carry a child for nine months and then give birth to a stillborn, so their wishes should be respected.”

Rabbi Farber added that ITIM is currently pursuing a legislative agenda to ensure that families are informed of their rights and are speaking with the Ministry of Religious Services to move legislation forward.

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