Editorial

Israel Must Make Good on Its Pledge to Assist Civil Burial

Twenty-one years after the Knesset passed a law guaranteeing a civil burial for any citizen who wished to have one, this elementary right is far from being applied

A Beit Shemesh cemetery where many Jews from abroad buy plots in advance, January 2017.
Emil Salman

An agreement signed recently between the National Insurance Institute and the Finance Ministry bears a worthy message – the state will now fund the transport of deceased people who asked to be buried in non-Orthodox cemeteries. This decision will limit the power wielded by private ambulance companies, which often exploit the families of the deceased at their most difficult moments. It will make this transportation cheaper.

The decision, however, also highlights civil burial’s marginal status in Israel. The state’s decision is an unsatisfactory solution. Correcting the situation will require the establishment of several non-Orthodox graveyards.

Twenty-one years after the Knesset passed a law guaranteeing a civil burial for any citizen who wished to have one, this elementary right is far from being applied. The Religious Services Ministry takes pride in the fact that 20 cemeteries across Israel have a license for performing civil burial, but in most of these only local people may be buried. In some of them there are no longer any vacant plots, while others charge tens of thousands of shekels to anyone not a resident. In fact, only three such cemeteries are open to everyone.

In an attempt to overcome this shortage, people wishing to be buried in a ceremony free of the Orthodox establishment must pay out of pocket for transporting the body to one of the few places permitting civil burial, often far from the deceased’s home or that of his family. People preferring a traditional burial don’t have to pay for this service due to the large number of Jewish cemeteries across the country.

Financing for the transportation of the deceased is conditional on the civil cemetery being outside the jurisdiction of the local town or council, and on there being no fees collected for the burial. This is but a small first step on the long road to equalization of conditions, considering that Orthodox burial societies receive generous financing.

The Orthodox community’s claim that there is “no demand” for civil burial (so reminiscent of similar claims regarding pluralistic approaches to teaching Judaism in state schools or to non-Orthodox communal activities) relies on a systematic drying up of all other options, both in terms of budgets and ideology. With civil burial, too, there are scant budgets and endless foot-dragging in allocating land.

The 1996 law regarding civil burial safeguards the right of all citizens to be buried in accordance with their worldview in a cemetery reasonably close to home. Financing the transportation of the deceased to a cemetery can help alleviate the shortage but not resolve it. The government must make this law a reality.