Shortage of Plots Makes Secular Burial Impossible for Most Israelis

Despite 1996 law recognizing secular burial as a right, the reality is there aren’t enough plots to go around

Cemetery at Kibbutz Givat Brenner.
Moti Milrod

About two weeks ago, when the father of a Reform rabbi died in Tel Aviv, the rabbi sought to have him buried in the secular cemetery at Kibbutz Givat Brenner, south of the city. The cemetery is one of the few in the country that has offer burial without charge to families who are not residents of the community, but the rabbi discovered that the cemetery at Givat Brenner had run out of plots several weeks ago.

The same thing has been happening at the few other secular cemeteries that offer plots to people from anywhere in the country. Organizations seeking to establish secular cemeteries — meaning cemeteries not under Orthodox religious management — in Jerusalem and near the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva are still waiting for the required government funding. The only other option offered to the Reform rabbi was the secular cemetery in Be’er Sheva, a considerable distance from Tel Aviv.

According to the Religious Services Ministry’s website, only 20 cemeteries nationwide are licensed to handle civil burials, and most serve only residents of their own communities. And then, as noted, there is the problem that some, including also those in Haifa and Acre, are full, while others charge tens of thousands of shekels to bury anyone who isn’t a resident of the locale.

As reported in Haaretz last month, the government will now pay for the cost of transporting bodies for burial at secular cemeteries even outside the deceased’s city of residence, in an effort to address the shortage of secular burial sites. The goal is to prevent private ambulance companies from charging bereaved families for transporting the body of their loved ones. 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.

But due to the shortage of secular cemeteries, the new policy does not provide a solution to families who seek burial in close proximity to their homes — this, despite legislation passed in 1996 that recognized that option as a right.

A list appearing on the Religious Services Ministry’s website still shows Givat Brenner as a secular cemetery where burials are available (at the state’s expense) for deceased from all over the country. Sources at the firm that manages the cemetery said work has begun on expanding it. They expressed the hope that burials for those from around the country will resume in a matter of a few weeks. Other secular cemeteries in the Tel Aviv area only allow burial of local residents.

In a letter to Religious Services Minister David Azoulay, Rabbi Uri Regev, the director of Hiddush, an organization promoting religious equality in Israel, wrote: “It’s hard to take the statements of the people at the Religious Services Ministry seriously over their desire to implement the civil burial law and over the steps taken in this direction.” Regev added in his letter to Azoulay, who is from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, that if the current situation had existed with regard to Orthodox religious burial, “you would not have allowed such a reality to exist for even one day.”

It appears that the situation regarding secular burials in Jerusalem is even more serious than in the Tel Aviv area. In 2011, a decision was made to allocate land at Har Hamenuhot, an area of the Givat Shaul neighborhood with a number of cemetery sections, to a secular cemetery association known as “Menuha Nehona – Jerusalem.” But the association does not have the funds — estimated at about 37 million shekels ($10.2 million) — to prepare the land for use as a burial site. In February 2016, a meeting was held at the Religious Services Ministry where a promise was made to expedite the preparation of the land.

“The obligation to establish a civil [secular] cemetery for Jerusalem residents rests with the state and not a private entity,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski, of Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which is representing the burial society. “For years there has been no advance in [preparation of] the civil cemetery at Har Hamenuhot. Even after the meeting that was held following repeated inquiries on our part, the endless foot-dragging is continuing. It is unacceptable that up to now, 20 years after the passage of the legislation, Jerusalem residents don’t have the option of civil burial.” Representatives of a burial society that is slated to run a secular burial site at the Yarkon Cemetery — the main cemetery for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area — made similar comments.

The Religious Services Ministry rejected claims that the law has not been implemented. The ministry stated that in recent years, 25 percent of the funding approved for burial has gone toward civil burial even though the civil option comprises only 4 percent of all burials. “Over the past 10 years, a more than 400 percent increase was recorded in the number of civil burial sites. The ministry is working by every means to ensure that there is no one that is not buried in accordance with his desires. We are pleased that we are indeed meeting this goal.”