Haredi Family of Transgender Woman Tries to Stop Her Cremation After Suicide

May Peleg, who committed suicide, was leader of Jerusalem gay community; family seeks Jewish burial of her as a man.

May Peleg, a transgender woman from Jerusalem who committed suicide im mid-November 2015.
Ofrit Asaf

The ultra-Orthodox family of a transgender woman who committed suicide over the weekend is trying to stop the cremation of her body, despite the woman’s wish to be cremated, as expressed in her will. Jerusalem District Court will hand down its ruling in the matter Wednesday.

The woman, May Peleg, 31, was a well-known figure in the gay community. A day before taking her own life she gave her will to attorney Yossi Wolfson. In it she gave instructions to cremate her body after her death. She requested that a ceremony be held, with most of her ashes scattered at sea and the rest placed under a tree to be planted in her memory.

Two years ago Peleg was chosen to head the executive committee of Jerusalem’s Open House, the local gay community center. She also set up a support group for transgender people and was active in a group called White Flag which assists people who have been emotionally traumatized. She also owned a gay pub called Mikveh in Jerusalem.

Even though her family had not been in touch with her and, according to Peleg, had rejected her, she was worried that they would try to block the cremation. Thus she asked in her will for Wolfson's assistance. “Since I have no contact with my biological family and since I fear that after my death there will be those who try to obstruct my final wish to be cremated, using various arguments, I ask you to represent me in court and be my voice,” she wrote.

The day after her suicide, Wolfson asked Jerusalem District Court to instruct the state to deliver her body for cremation. He stated that before dying, Peleg had contacted the Aley Shalechet funeral home and crematorium, and paid for her cremation. “In the request form, she asked anyone connected to the matter to honor her request. Her wish to be cremated was known to all her friends,” the attorney wrote.

Apprehensions confirmed

However, Peleg’s apprehensions were confirmed. Her mother appealed to the court, asking for an injunction that would stop the cremation. In her request she used the masculine form for describing the deceased. “I found out today that my son was discovered dead today,” wrote the mother in an affidavit. “I’m from an Orthodox family and my son’s burial is very important to me. I ask that his body not be cremated or transferred to any agency wishing to do so. I ask to be given the body for burial according to Jewish law.”

Referring to the will, the mother wrote: “I heard there was a will but I haven’t seen it. In any case it should be disqualified since my son was undergoing a deep mental crisis and was not capable of drawing up a will.” In contrast to the words of the deceased, the mother claimed that she maintained contact with her son. “I had an argument with May in relation to his divorce and sex change but I never gave up on my connection with him," she said. "I visited him at psychiatric hospitals he was in and I talked to him on the phone.”

Peleg recognized her transgender tendencies from a young age. She was sent to a boarding school at a young age and then joined the army. She got married at the age of 20 and had two children, who are currently nine and 10 years old. After several years she got a divorce and Peleg underwent a sex change operation. Peleg’s mother claimed that the ex-wife supports the family’s request for a Jewish burial. Three days after her death, Peleg’s body is still with the police.

'Stopped feeling the pain'

In her parting letter, she shared her suffering with her friends. “These words are written as a woman, but they are addressed to all genders. When you read this I will have peacefully gone into a state of non-existence. I slept and did not suffer, I slept and stopped feeling the pain and suffering that were my lot for most of my life,” she wrote. Peleg noted in the letter that she had been bullied as a child. “I lived on the street a lot, I used drugs and alcohol in an attempt to escape and dull the pain, in terrible loneliness, with constant rape, sexual exploitation and numerous sexual assaults,” she wrote.

After her divorce Peleg maintained good relations with the mother of her children, at first even living with them. Two years ago her ex-wife changed her attitude and prevented Peleg from seeing her children.

“She didn’t see them over the last two years,” says Gal Friedman, her adoptive brother. “She was very broken emotionally, she didn’t have the mental energy to go through a protracted legal battle, especially since she knew the establishment’s attitude to transgender women. She also didn’t want to put the children in the middle of it all.”

In an affidavit attached to the will, Peleg asked that her mother be prevented from getting her body after her death. She claimed that her mother rejected and opposed her, and that by not accepting her sex change she had forfeited her rights as a parent. Peleg stated that there had been no contact between the two for the last nine years, and that her mother had filed a financial claim against her and her divorcee three years ago, in which she sharply criticized her lifestyle. She added that her mother sent her text messages with curses and hopes for her death.

“There are reasonable grounds for concern that if my body reaches her hands she will subject me to a religious burial, with Judaism not recognizing me as a woman, even though I’ve undergone sex change surgery. This constitutes a lack of respect and an erasure of my identity,” wrote Peleg in her affidavit.

The court proceedings were attended by Peleg’s mother and friends. Wolfson said, "Everyone in Israel has rights over their body. Just as her family could not request the court to prohibit May from tattooing her body, cutting her hair the way she wanted to or changing her sex, the family cannot interfere with her wishes regarding the disposal of her body. May acted with consideration and detailed logic. She knew who would object and what their reasons would be and she preempted this with her stated objections.”

Attorney: 'Cremation contrary to Jewish law'

Attorney Yitzhak Dahan, representing the mother, said the will has no validity. “The moral obligation to honor the will is the family prerogative and there is no legal validity to other instructions.” He referred to Peleg as a male and said that the family, brothers, sisters and children want him to be buried according to Jewish law. "Cremation is contrary to Jewish law,” Dahan noted.

The court allowed Wolfson to present a psychiatric evaluation of Peleg from September, which attested to her competence.