Editorial

The Government Is Burying Israelis’ Chances of Getting a Civil Burial

The transfer of responsibility to Orthodox entities is yet another stage in the government’s shirking of its obligation to implement the civil burial law.

Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, May 9, 2016.
Emil Salman

Twenty years after the Knesset passed a law stating that “a person is entitled to be buried in accordance with his outlook in an alternative civil cemetery,” this promise is still far from being fully implemented.

It’s no coincidence that nonprofit groups promoting nonreligious civil burial must resort to the courts time after time. They hope that the courts will rebuke the government which has been putting obstacles in the path of implementation of the law and make it mend its ways.

This is an unreasonable situation in which the exercise of the basic right of civil burial depends mainly on the initiative of private organizations and nonprofit groups.

Supposedly, the battles being waged by nonprofit groups around the country in support of civil burial are only a local issue. Most of these efforts face a common denominator: years of foot-dragging in allocating land, amid tiny funding that’s dwindling even further. In the absence of a proper public solution, people seeking to arrange a civil burial for themselves must pay private civil cemeteries sums sometimes reaching the tens of thousands of shekels.

The case of the civil burial area at the Yarkon cemetery near Petah Tikva reflects the two main obstacles that the government has been putting up. After a battle of about 10 years, the Menuha Nehona burial organization received a plot of 10 dunams (2.5 acres), but the required budget for initial development of the site was estimated at about 10 million shekels ($2.6 million).

The group hasn’t been able to raise such a sum, so the site has remained empty for the past three years. In the meantime, the adjacent Orthodox burial ground is filling up, in part as a result of direct and indirect government support.

In addition to such an intentional lack of support, the Religious Services Ministry has found another way to make it difficult for people seeking a secular burial. Responsibility for developing and operating some of the civil burial sites has been transferred to Orthodox entities such as local religious councils or kevra kadisha religious burial societies. That was the case at the Tel Regev cemetery, which serves the Haifa area.

But a civil cemetery is different from a comparable Orthodox institution, from the physical planning for the site to the services provided to families. The transfer of responsibility for civil burial to Orthodox entities is yet another stage in the government’s shirking of its obligation to implement the alternative civil burial law.

By its very nature, burial free of religious aspects cannot function under the auspices of people and organizations not committed to these principles. The government must fully respect the desire of people to be free of the services of the Orthodox establishment, both in life and in death.