UK Chief Rabbi steps in on dispute over religious burials in London

"No death will be prioritized in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family.”

A Jewish cemetery (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A Jewish cemetery (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis penned a letter to Lord Chancellor David Gauke on Wednesday, expressing his distress over a disagreement between the Jewish community and a London coroner over the delay of religious burials.
Mary Hassell, the senior coroner for inner north London, had dismissed the Jewish and Islamic law that bodies of the deceased must be buried as soon as possible after death – ideally on the same day – telling Jewish leaders in a letter: “No death will be prioritized in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family.”
Hassell’s jurisdiction is home to large communities of Muslims and Orthodox Jews.
“I am saddened to have to raise with you a matter which has caused Jewish communities in north London a great deal of distress,” Mirvis wrote to the lord chancellor.
Praising the British values of mutual respect for people of all faiths, Mirvis continued: “As you may already be aware, concern had grown over recent years about the failure of Ms. Mary Hassell, senior coroner for inner north London, to give due regard to the deeply held religious beliefs of Jewish and indeed Muslim families in the area. I have received copies of correspondence between Ms. Hassell and a Jewish communal organization, the Adath Yisrael Burial Society, and I have been extremely troubled by Ms. Hassell’s stated position.”
At a meeting with Hassell last Friday, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Adath Yisrael Burial Society attempted to persuade the coroner to withdraw the new directive, as well as a second directive that prevents bodies from having shemira, in which fellow Jews tend to the body around the clock until their burials.
The groups told the local media that Hassell showed little interest in addressing the Jewish community’s concerns during the meeting. The Board of Deputies sent a letter to Gauke Monday, calling for Hassell’s dismissal following their meeting.
Mirvis stopped short of demanding Hassell’s dismissal, instead appealing to the lord chancellor for reassurance for the Jewish community.
“Jewish tradition places great emphasis on the importance of burial of the deceased without delay. Where the fastest possible burial is denied to a Jewish family, it can cause a great deal of pain at a time when they are already grieving. In the case of Ms. Hassell, she has made clear that she will not expedite the burial of a Jewish or Muslim person, even in cases where it is possible to do so.
As far as I am aware, there are no other coroners, anywhere else in the country, who have taken such a stance,” Mirvis remarked.
Addressing Hassell’s implication that religious groups expect the interests of their families to be placed ahead of others, Mirvis said, “We would never wish to see a system in which one group is advantaged at the expense of another. Yet, it should go without saying that where cultural and religious needs can be met without disadvantaging anybody else, they certainly should be.”
One woman made 210 phone calls to the St. Pancras Coroner’s Office before being assured that her father would be buried four days after his death. Another family was told it would have to wait two weeks for an autopsy to be performed before a funeral could be held.
In 2015, Hassell lost a judicial review brought by the family of an Orthodox Jewish woman. Hassell’s office insisted that the woman have an invasive autopsy, which is against Jewish law.
Last year, Hassell was formally reprimanded by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office for publicizing a letter in which she alleged that she was being bullied by the Jewish community.