Guidelines drawn up by an interministerial committee mean to the parents of stillborn children or infants who die within 30 days of birth will have the right to know where the place of burial is and to participate in burial ceremonies.
Until now, the rights of parents in these circumstances have been unclear and many burial societies have prevented the bereaved parents from being able to participate in any way in burials.
According to Jewish law, parents of a stillborn baby or an infant who died during the first 30 days of 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, 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 which takes the body to be buried. The 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.
The ITIM religious services advisory group says that it receives approximately 20 complaints a year from parents wishing to take part in the burial or to be informed of the place of burial but whose requests are denied by the burial societies.
The terms of the guidelines drawn up by the Health, Religious Services and Justice ministries and published earlier this month explicitly give parents of a miscarried fetus of 20 weeks and over, stillborns, and infants which die within 30 days of being born the right to decide the manner of burial.
In one 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. ITIM intervened and the burial society subsequently allowed to her to visit the burial site..
“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 well-being.”
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber said that for some families it is very important to them to know where their child or stillborn fetus is buried and this enables them to express their grief and subsequently to move onwards with their lives.
He called the regulations “a dramatic change” which establish the rights of parents to participate in the burial of and know the place of the burial of their infant children.
“This is an important step in guaranteeing the rights of parents who are otherwise exceptionally vulnerable,” said Farber.
“In the past, in the absence of regulations, many hospitals simply passed on the responsibility to the local burial society, whose policies are to not let parents participate in burials or even know the place of burial.
“Now this will be up to the parent in many situations.”