Restless resting places

Mayor Uri Lupolianski is calling for the establishment of a secular cemetery.

cemetery 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
cemetery 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Every so often, the issue of secular burial in Jerusalem comes up again, yet another battle in the ongoing culture war between religious commandments and secular rights and preferences. It's come up again. And this time the impetus is coming from what seems, at least at first, to be a very unexpected source. Recently, Mayor Uri Lupolianski has reiterated that he will do his utmost to promote the establishment of secular burial. According to Israeli law, the National Insurance Institute (NII) covers the cost of a burial. Hevrot kadisha (burial societies), registered as non-profit organizations, receive permits to conduct burials in officially recognized public cemeteries on lands allocated by the Israel Lands Administration (ILA). The NII, explains Shimon Navon, the official in charge of the hevrot kadisha, hands the money over to "any non-profit that has a permit to conduct the burials." Until only a decade ago, all of the hevrot kadisha followed Orthodox customs and interpretation of Jewish law. This however, led to a series of heart-breaking and politically embarrassing cases. Strict religious interpretation dictates that a non-Jew, no matter how deeply he or she was involved in Judaism or in Israeli society, may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. As a result, religious authorities occasionally refused to allow non-converted soldiers, or those whose Jewishness they questioned, to be buried in military cemeteries, even when the soldier had been killed in the line of duty. The problem has been solved in military cemeteries, where Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers now do receive the same treatment, but the problem still remains for thousands of immigrants, especially those from the former Soviet Union, who wish neither to convert nor to be buried in accordance with religious practice. "It's not only the problem of those who cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries," explains Ilan Michel, a Jerusalemite and a member of Menuha Nechona, a secular hevra kadisha. "Some people really don't wish to end their life in the hands of haredi employees of the hevra kadisha, especially if they didn't live their lives according to these rites." A 1996 law requires allocation of 10 percent of every new cemetery for secular burial. Also in 1996, Menuha Nechona appealed to the High Court of Justice, which reaffirmed that every citizen has the right to be buried in a public cemetery in a non-religious or alternative manner. The NII has formally stated that it is willing to work with any legal burial society. "We do not care at all if the burial is an Orthodox, Jewish or non-Jewish or secular burial - as long as it is done in a permitted location," says Navon. When using Menuha Nechona, the family is free to choose the kind of ceremony they wish, or according to instructions left by the deceased. This means that the ceremony is not bound by the demands of the Orthodox interpretation upon which most burial societies insist, and can be according to Conservative, Reform, secular, humanistic or even artistic traditions. However, to date, alternative public burial is available only in Beersheba. Private alternative burial is available in some kibbutzim - which have reaped great profits offering secular cemeteries and ceremonies. And while some hevrot kadisha, such as those operating at the Etz Hayim cemetery near Beit Shemesh, are commonly believed to be more liberal in their interpretation of law and their willingness to consider the families' wishes, some hevrot kadisha in Jerusalem are regarded as particularly strict, imposing behavior such as "the Jerusalem custom" (in which first-born sons do not fully participate in the ceremony) upon unsuspecting mourners. Even before he was elected, Lupolianski announced that he was not opposed to the creation of a section for alternative and secular burial. "People who wish to be buried in accordance with the way they lived their lives should be afforded such a possibility," he has repeatedly said. Lupolianski also told IJ, "A secular site is a solution for everyone. Those who wish to be buried according to Jewish law will no longer be troubled by people who do not observe the law or who shouldn't be buried in a Jewish cemetery. And people who want a different ceremony will have the opportunity to have that ceremony in a public cemetery." Har Hamenuhot is not a new cemetery but it has recently been enlarged. Lupolianski contends that once the land is transferred from the ILA, the 1996 law could be applied to the expansion. In April 2006, the municipal spokesman promised that the municipality would allocate a 20-dunam plot for some 18,000 graves. Shinui's city councilwoman Dalia Zomer, a staunch oppositionist, is pleased. "Nothing has moved yet, but we are convinced it is not a matter of ill will. It really does take time and I am sure that Mayor Lupolianski intends to keep his promises." When the land is officially transferred from the ILA to the municipality, Zomer notes, the municipality will have to seek tenders. "I assume that other associations, in addition to Menuha Nechona, may be interested in this, so we will have to be very careful," Zomer says. Similarly, earlier this week, the municipal spokesman also said, "At Har Hamenuhot, a separate plot will be given for alternative and secular burial, and, of course, there will be a tender to decide which association will be in charge of the place". Menuha Nechona officials are cautiously pleased. Rabbi Zvi Graetz, a Conservative rabbi affiliated with Menuha Nechona, says that he is also convinced that Lupolianski "is not obstructing the project" and that he and his colleagues are busy preparing for the tender. "We are planning a large meeting for the beginning of September, in which we hope to see all the eventual participants - secular, Conservative, Reform and maybe even Orthodox - who will promote this very important project, so that we will be able to give the public what it wants - such as burial in a coffin, permitting women to recite the kaddish (memorial prayer) and so on." Lupolianski has angered some in the haredi community, who object to allowing Jews to be buried in a manner inconsistent with their interpretation of Jewish law. Condemnations, some of them quite vilifying, have appeared on pashkavillim (broadsheets) throughout the haredi neighborhoods. However, a well-known haredi official, who was unwilling to be identified, was willing to say that much of the haredi opposition to Lupolianski's proposal is politically, and not religiously, motivated. "We are not at all opposed to this issue. On the contrary - in the past, there have been many cases in which we couldn't bury non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries. People were so angry at us but we couldn't do otherwise. We have always thought that this could be the best solution for all."