Widow 'held to ransom' in burial fees row

A 79-year-old widow claims she is not being allowed to erect a headstone for her husband for refusing to pay an additional burial fee which is at the heart of a long-running dispute between Birmingham's two Orthodox synagogues.

Central Synagogue leaders have been infuriated by the imposition of steep rises in burial fees and maintenance charges from Birmingham Hebrew Congregation (Singers Hill), which administers the Witton and Brandwood End cemeteries.

For three years, Central has refused to pay an almost doubled annual maintenance charge for the grounds from Singers Hill, insisting there was "no justification" for the £5,000 claimed. It is however, paying the former amount of £2,800.

The individual burial charge was doubled from £1,500 to £3,000 in 2006 and raised again last year to £3,500. Singers Hill later informed Central that it proposed to discontinue the maintenance charge but would raise the burial fee for Central members to £5,500.

My husband had said he would never pay the £2k extra

Ivan Thrilling was the first Central member buried at Witton under the new fee system. After the funeral in April, his widow Shirley contacted the Singers Hill office to discuss arrangements for the stone-setting. "I was asked if I had paid the bill. When I told them I was not prepared to pay, I was told: 'There is no gravestone then'. I was very upset. I don't think that halachically they can dictate that an extra amount has to be paid for the stone.

"Ivan was an honest, upstanding and generous man. He was a well respected member of the shul. Just before he died he had said that he would never pay the £2,000 extra as this was just for Central members."

Mrs Thrilling explained her position in a letter to BHC treasurer Gerald Bloom. He wrote in reply that "everybody has to do this".

"We are the test case," she added. "It's the principle of the thing. They are holding me to ransom.

"I am doing this for my husband. He doesn't deserve to be lying there with all this going on. I have vowed I would take this as far as I can. I want to know how they arrived at [a rise of] £2,000 - it's not itemised."

Mrs Thrilling said she would pay the former £3,500 burial fee once the probate is finalised in a few weeks' time.

Central president Geoffrey Clements said it was "a terrible situation" for Mrs Thrilling. "They are refusing to erect a headstone if she doesn't pay," he claimed. "Mrs Thrilling is under tremendous pressure."

The two shuls, located a mile apart, had been close to resolving the dispute in February. "But BHC have added unacceptable conditions to the financial settlement. The only way forward is to find a third party to arbitrate."

There have been failed attempts to agree a merger between the shuls, which have dwindling congregations.

Mr Bloom declined to comment. BHC chairman Keith Rowe would say only: "It's a sensitive matter. We would prefer to handle things in a private way."

Last updated: 4:01pm, October 16 2012