Israel to Substantially Cut Costs to Transport Corpses for Civil Burial

Aim is to prevent private ambulance firms from price-gouging bereaved families

Menucha Nechona civil cemetery in Be’er Sheva
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The state will pay for transporting dead bodies to nonreligious cemeteries even if the cemetery isn’t anywhere near the person’s home, under an agreement reached recently by the National Insurance Institute and the Finance Ministry.

The agreement, which will be valid for five years, was published in the official government gazette a few weeks ago. Its goal is to prevent private ambulance companies from charging bereaved families for transporting the corpse.

Nevertheless, the state will pay for transportation only if the cemetery doesn’t charge for the burial, and if it is located outside the municipal boundaries of the person’s hometown.

Advocates for nonreligious burial welcomed the agreement, but said its necessity merely underscores how few options for civil burial exist in Israel.

According to the Religious Services Ministry’s website, only 20 cemeteries nationwide are licensed to do civil burials, and most serve only residents of their own community. Moreover, some are already full, such as the ones in Haifa and Acre, while others charge tens of thousands of shekels to bury anyone who isn’t a resident of the town.

Thus, in practice only a few nonreligious cemeteries are open to everyone, with the main ones being those in Be’er Sheva and Givat Brenner.

The law permitting civil burial was passed only in 1996. From 1997 to 2003, the state paid the costs of transporting corpses to nonreligious cemeteries, but in 2003 the agreement guaranteeing payment lapsed.

Ever since, private ambulance companies have been charging hefty fees to transport corpses. In one case, a family was charged 1,500 shekels ($410) to transport a corpse from Lod to Be’er Sheva, even though the normal fee would only be about 1,000 shekels. The family also had to pay another 8,500 shekels for things the state provides for free in religious cemeteries, like the gravesite, coffin and shroud.

“There are a lot of complaints about the private companies, which are unregulated and exploit the bereaved families at their most difficult moments,” an NII official said. “These ambulances ask for exorbitant payments for services that are mostly given for free. Even if this isn’t a crime, it’s immoral. It’s impossible to leave the matter to negotiations between the ambulance company and the family.”

During the last Knesset (2013-15), MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) sponsored a bill to have the state resume payments for transporting corpses to nonreligious cemeteries. The NII and Religious Services Ministry both backed the bill, but early elections were called before it could pass.

Maurice Kalfon, director of the Menucha Nechona civil cemetery in Be’er Sheva, said the new agreement will help people who want a nonreligious funeral.

“This equalizes the conditions,” he said. “Just as a bereaved family that wants a Jewish burial doesn’t bear the costs of transportation since such cemeteries exist almost everywhere, from now on the state will also take over funding transportation for deceased people who want a civil burial, and thereby liberate the families who were at the mercy of the private companies.

“The agreement is important, but no less important is it to publicize it as much as possible,” he added. “People have to know their rights.”

Attorney Yifat Solel, a leading advocate for civil burial, noted, “Twenty-one years after the law was enacted, most Israelis still can’t exercise their right to be buried in accordance with their beliefs in a cemetery at a reasonable distance from their home.” Thus, while she welcomed the agreement, she said the state also must establish more civil cemeteries.

“Transporting the dead halfway across the country isn’t a normal situation,” she said.

In September 2014, the Kfar Sava Magistrate’s Court ordered the state to reimburse two people 33,000 shekels for the costs of burying their spouses in Kfar Sava’s civil cemetery. The ruling also criticized the state for failing to build more such cemeteries, as mandated by the law, so that people could have civil burials near their homes.

Since then, according to Religious Services Ministry data obtained by the Hatzlaha organization, four other suits have been filed against the state for failure to implement the law. In three, out-of-court settlements were reached in which the state paid the plaintiffs 12,500 to 15,000 shekels each. The fourth is still in court.

A source involved in the issue said that in light of the Kfar Sava court’s ruling, the state generally prefers to settle such cases out of court.