US report into stilborn graves fails to focus the blame

By Jessica Elgot and Jonathan Kalmus, December 9, 2011
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A report into missing graves of stillborn babies, buried in unmarked plots by the United Synagogue, has found no policy existed for dealing with infant deaths until the late 1980s.

The report investigated the claims of dozens of parents that US officials in the 1960s and '70s had told them their babies had to be buried in secret graves, along with other, deceased mothers. But it failed to identify who in the US office was responsible for this misleading information given to parents after their babies' deaths.

In the internal report this week, US archivist Charles Tucker said: "It could still be that we are dealing with arrogant officials acting on their own initiative."

Distraught parents contacted the JC before Yom Kippur this year, after discovering that their babies were actually buried in single, unmarked plots.

We have not found someone who has held their hands up

The report was compiled by United Synagogue Burial Society chairman, Brian Markeson; head of the Burial Society, Melvyn Hartog; and the director of US external and legal affairs, David Frei.

Mr Hartog said he had been contacted by 50 families, 36 of whom had had children buried by the US. He had been able to locate the graves of all 36 children. The earliest was in 1933 and the practice continued until as late as 1985.

The former head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, said that, when he first came to London from Manchester in the early 1980s, the policy, as in Manchester, was not to tell the parents where their stillborn child was buried. He told the inquiry: "I immediately put a stop to the practice as I could see no reason why the parents should not be told where their child was buried."

The report noted that stories of stillborn babies being buried in the graves of adults were prevalent in the non-Jewish world in the early part of the last century. Since the JC investigated the claims, other burial societies, including the Jewish Joint Burial Society, Federation and the Western Burial Society, were found to have had similar practices.

Mr Hartog said that the JC's action in putting the families' plight in the spotlight had been "a mitzvah" and "absolutely the right thing to do. We were able to find the graves quickly, and I took families to see them. Many of them had walked past the graves of their children on visits to Bushey Cemetery. We can't go back in time and change things, but we can make sure it never happens again."

Mr Markeson, who has chaired the Burial Society since July, said: "I believe the US has responded very, very well. We tried to lead on this, we left no stone unturned. This cut the US very deeply and I hope we can now always be relied upon to provide a sensitive, professional service in the most difficult times".

He admitted: "We have not found someone from the period who has held their hands up and said it was they who misinformed parents, or said that was what they were told to do. But we don't want to reopen old wounds."

The US now has a formal policy that any dead baby, whether a miscarriage, a stillborn or a child under 30 days old, will have its own burial plot. It will publish a guide for bereaved parents, advising rabbis and families how to cope.

But Dayan Yehuda Osher Steiner, from the Manchester Beth Din, warned that new guidelines should not put undue burdens on bereaved parents.

He said: "I have personal experience dealing with miscarriage cases. There is a lot of trauma. To obligate people to pay £1,000 for a gravestone at such a time would be absurd. If we start to talk to these young women about what kind of stone and burial, people may be very tempted not to call the Chevra Kadisha at all and just tell hospitals to dispose of the baby. The rabbis of the Talmud were careful not to obligate every woman who has a miscarriage or stillbirth to spend money on a stone.

"If a family do want to put up a stone or plaque, of course it should be done. But there is a halachic obligation to bury a foetus once it reaches 40 days and it must not be given to scientific experimentation, or just dumped."

Last updated: 1:26pm, December 13 2011