'Secular Israelis can't go to Cyprus to be buried'

Secular burial law delayed because most of those responsible are fundamentally opposed to it.

graves 88 (photo credit: )
graves 88
(photo credit: )
Twelve years after Israel passed legislation facilitating state-funded secular burial for citizens throughout the nation, only one secular cemetery exists and funding for the development of additional plots is sporadic. These were the findings of a Knesset Interior Affairs Committee on Tuesday. Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin, who was acting committee chairman, attacked the Religious Affairs Ministry during the meeting for what he called "theological opposition" that had blocked funds earmarked for secular burials. "Secular Israelis can't just go to Cypress to be buried," said Beilin, referring to some secular couples' choice to marry abroad in order to circumvent the rabbinate, which controls all marriages among Jewish Israelis. In Israel, there is no separation between religion and state. As a result, the Orthodox establishment has a monopoly over marriages, divorces and burials. A total of NIS 11.5 million allocated in the 2007 state budget for developing secular burial plots was never utilized. Since the money was not used in 2007, it can no longer be spent. According to a report by the Knesset Research and Information Center, implementation of the secular burial law has been delayed for two reasons. First, religious burial societies, which control the allotment of burial plots in the vast majority of cemeteries around the country, are interested in maintaining their monopoly. Second, most of those responsible for implementing the legislation are fundamentally opposed to it. Every citizen is legally entitled to a free burial via the National Insurance Institute. Until 1996, only religious burials were eligible for state funding. In that year, the state passed a law authorizing secular burial for any Israeli who desired it. According to the legislation, the state was supposed to establish secular cemeteries in four locations: Beersheba, Jerusalem, the Haifa area, and in the Tel Aviv area. However, so far only one cemetery, established in 1999, has been built. Currently, Israelis can opt for a private burial on a moshav or kibbutz, but must pay between NIS 8,000 and NIS 20,000. Maurice Kalfon, Chairman of Menucha Nechona (Appropriate Rest) Israel, a non-profit organization that advocates for civil burial, said that the Beersheba cemetery was the only secular one in Israel that received full state funding. If someone desiring a secular burial dies in Metulla, Israel's northernmost city, he or she must be transported all the way to Beersheba in the South to be laid to rest, Kalfon said. Menucha Nechona has petitioned the High Court of Justice to force the state to provide secular burials in accordance with the 1996 legislation. Religious Affairs Ministry director-general Meir Spiegler admitted that the criteria set by his ministry for funding secular burial were "nearly impossible to meet." "No money was set aside this year for secular burials," said Spiegler. "Nevertheless, I recommend that those who want a secular burial present a request for funding. The state is obligated to provide that service." Jewish burials are performed by Orthodox burial societies in accordance with Jewish custom. The deceased is buried without a casket, the kaddish prayer is recited and the mourners are asked to rend their garments. In contrast, in a secular burial, said Kalfon, caskets are used, alternative texts such as secular poetry are recited and music is played. "People want to die the way they lived their lives - in a secular fashion. Mourners don't want Orthodox Jews telling them how to express their grief," said Kalfon. Approximately 34,000 Israelis, Jews and non-Jews, die annually. Kalfon said he did not know how many chose secular burials. But he said that in Beersheba, 30 percent opted for a secular burial.