More Israelis can opt for civil burials

By Nathan Jeffay Haifa, June 18, 2009
Traditional: Israeli funerals like this are conducted by Orthodox burial societies. Now there is a secular option

Traditional: Israeli funerals like this are conducted by Orthodox burial societies. Now there is a secular option

The prospect of civil marriage in Israel is receding, but civil burial became easier with the opening of the country’s second state civil cemetery.

Administered by a non-governmental organisation called Menucha Nechona (Proper Rest), the new facility, in Kfar Saba, will accommodate people of all religions and none. Burial rituals will be a matter of personal choice, as will be the style of burial. Coffins, though unusual in Israel, may be used.

There is only one other state civil cemetery; in Be’er Sheba in the Negev.

“This is a revolutionary step,” says Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Menucha Nechona board member and head of Israel’s Reform movement. “If it works in Kfar Saba it should work in Ra’anana, in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. But it is a step in a very long route that must include the establishment of civil cemeteries in all municipalities.”

Burial in Israel is state-funded. With the exception of the two civil cemeteries, it is administered by churches, mosques and Orthodox chevrah kadishas, or burial societies. Over the past decade, more than 20 cemeteries have opened for non-Jews, including over 320,000 immigrants from the FSU, and those whose Jewishness is disputed by the Orthodox burial societies, such as Reform and Conservative converts.

These cemeteries are all run by Orthodox burial societies and many people destined for them say they want to be buried on their own terms. Until now, this has only been possible in Be’er Sheba, or by going private and paying over £3,000 for a plot on a kibbutz.

While the main beneficiary of the new facility will be Russian-speakers, it means that for the first time in central Israel, the Reform and Conservative movements will be able to conduct state-funded burials.

The development comes at a sensitive time for those calling for the separation of religion and state. Last week, a civil marriage bill fell in the Knesset on a preliminary reading, meaning Israeli Jews wishing to marry out will not be able to do so in Israel, where marriage is only performed by religious authorities.

Advocates for secular cemeteries say it is too little too late, given that the Knesset resolved 13 years ago that every Israeli should be buried as they wish. They blame sluggishness in government and pressure from religious politicians. And now that the Sephardi Charedi Shas party is in charge of the Interior Ministry things can be expected to move even more slowly.

Ludmilla Oigenblick of the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families said: “You often can’t be buried in your own city. People want relations to visit their graves, but if they are buried nowhere near, it is difficult.”

Last updated: 3:43pm, June 18 2009