The right to rest

Secular burial options exist in Israel.

Menucha Nechona cemetery outside Kfar Saba. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Menucha Nechona cemetery outside Kfar Saba.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Menucha Nechona (“Right Rest”) is a not-for-profit association founded in 1986. Its aim, according to its website, is to “protect the rights of all citizens to die and be buried according to their own convictions – without coercion.” Other organizations that share these goals have gathered under its umbrella.
Legislation recognizing Menucha Nechona as an alternative burial society passed in 1988. However, laws obligating the Religious Affairs Ministry to allocate land for secular burial were postponed until 1992. In 1996, after winning a round of legal battles, Menucha Nechona began to acquire land around the country for building cemeteries.
To date, there are 12 secular cemeteries among Israel’s 1,251 burial grounds. There are also 21 traditional Jewish cemeteries that have separate grounds for civil burials. In addition, some kibbutzim offer private burial for people who are not Jews or for anyone else requesting it, for pay.
Metro caught up with Shalom Noy, one of the founders of the burial society and a volunteer at the Kfar Saba cemetery.
“Our organization is run by volunteers,” he says. “We employ salaried workers such as agricultural workers, undertakers and a secretary; but all the managers are volunteers, as are the trained burial directors.”
Between 2009 and June 2013, 4,002 civil burials took place. Statistics predicting future demand for them wobble between 6 and 17 percent of all Israeli burials.
“For several reasons, it’s difficult to calculate what percentage of Israel’s residents prefer secular burial,” says Noy. “Easy access to the cemetery and cost are important factors. Our cemeteries are inconveniently located off highways far from towns.”
Costs of burial and religious rites are covered by the National Insurance Institute, as long as the person lived in the area that the cemetery officially serves. Private burials and pre-purchased plots cost about NIS 12,000.
“Our service is free for local people,” continues Noy. “But when the person lived outside the areas we serve, many families choose the free burial provided in local cemeteries and take the religious part along with it, rather than pay for what amounts to private burial in one of our cemeteries.” He notes that “here in the Kfar Saba branch of Menucha Nechona, we’ve buried almost 600 people, which works out to an average of 150 people yearly, in the four years we’ve been operating. There would be more civil burials if there were more secular cemeteries.”
Who requests secular burial? “All kinds of people,” says Noy. “Non-Jews who were married to Jews – that accounts for most of the headstones with Russian writing. Atheists of all backgrounds. People whose Jewish status isn’t certain. Non-Arab Christians.”
His organization even had a haredi (ultra- Orthodox) funeral, he recalls. “It was a woman, buried in a coffin, which is unusual for haredim, and the burial was attended by some 40 yeshiva men.”
By law, a funeral must be carried out within six hours of notifying the organization in charge, if that is the family’s wish. However, burial may be delayed to allow mourners to arrive from abroad.
“There was a funeral where the mourners flew in from the United States, all of them dressed in formal suits and ties,” he remembers. “On the other hand, we occasionally sit down with someone who buys a plot and prearranges his or her own funeral. One woman ordered a catered meal for her mourners, with a drinks bar and sandwiches and cake. When the time came, it was done.”
He says that “some families just like the idea of visiting their loved one in a green, peaceful setting. We make the experience as comfortable as possible. For example, the paths between sites are intentionally wide to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers.”
A family requesting burial from Menucha Nechona can expect to meet with one of the group’s trained directors. They discuss options and make choices with the director’s help. The family may wish for religious rites with prayers, or a secular ceremony, or no ceremony at all. They may want music. They can choose burial in a coffin or in a traditional shroud; ritual cleansing of the deceased, or not; a standing headstone or one that is simply set down in the grass at the head of the grave. The director ensures that the instructions are carried out, and manages the ceremony.
“We have six trained burial directors so far,” says Noy. “Four are secular, and one of those is a woman – some families prefer dealing with a woman. One director is haredi. He’s also a hazan [cantor]. One is modern Orthodox, with a crocheted kippa. Obviously the greatest demand is for secular directors, but we want to have an appropriate person available for everyone. We hope to train more in the near future.”
Local authorities aren’t friendly to secular burial, preferring to allot land to the local hevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) or religious council over requests from Menucha Nechona. Perhaps the numbers aren’t large enough to persuade local authorities to allot land and budgets for new secular cemeteries, or perhaps this alternative to traditional burial disturbs prejudices. In any case, although all cemeteries are legally required to set aside 10% of their land for secular burials, this has not taken effect so far, says Noy.
Interested parties may reach Menucha Nechona on 073-275-5777 or by email at