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Message to Mary Hassell: requiring quick burials is not queue-jumping

Jews are not asking the senior coroner for preferential treatment - they want the same service to be offered to everyone who needs it

    Senior coroner Mary Hassell
    Senior coroner Mary Hassell (Photo: Wales News Service)

    As British citizens, we pride ourselves on our calmness in the face of trying circumstances. “Mustn’t grumble”, after all.

    But there is one scenario that is guaranteed to enflame even the most mild-mannered of us. Nothing enrages us quite as much as the idea of someone jumping the queue.

    Over the past few weeks, the JC has devoted much space to the story of Mary Hassell, the senior coroner at the St Pancras court in London, whose jurisdiction covers a significant section of the capital’s Jewish community.

    Ms Hassell has told Jewish communal representatives that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family, either by coroner’s officers or coroners.” Her policy, she says, is to follow the “cab rank rule” – everybody waits in line.

    “If I instruct my coroner’s offices to do the work necessary to deal with one family ahead of others waiting in the queue for consideration and to treat that family more favourably, then the consequence is that others in queue have to wait longer than they would have otherwise and are treated less favourably,” she has written.

    “That is not fair.”

    As a proud Brit, it is easy to find oneself nodding in agreement with Ms Hassell. Queue-jumping offends our sense of fair play. As in life, surely in death, the policy should be ‘first come, first served’?

    However, the reality is rather different. The fact is that the Jewish community in the area is not asking for preferential treatment. Rather, they are asking for an expedited burial service to be made available to all who want it.

    Many families, and many communities, prefer to wait for a few days before burying a loved one. It gives time for everyone to gather together for the funeral or cremation. By contrast, Jewish law (and Islamic law) stresses that the dead need to be buried as quickly as possible, with no wait, for example, for family members flying in from abroad.

    However, the Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS) has specifically said that the service they are requesting should be open to everyone. If any family, from whatever background, wants a quicker burial for any reason, they should be able to request a quicker service which will lead to an earlier release of the body.  Rather than jumping a queue, the coroner would be offering a speedier service to those who want it, and a regular service to those who prefer to take their time. This seems eminently reasonable.

    As described to me a couple of weeks ago by a member of the AYBS, a far better analogy would be of someone waiting in an airport queue, with no particular hurry before their flight takes off. There is another queue, specifically for people who, through no fault of their own, are in a big hurry to catch their flight. Most people in the first queue would not begrudge others in the second.

    There are requirements in Judaism regarding the status of an avel – a family member mourning the death of a loved one after burial.

    What is less well known, perhaps, is the status of an onen – a family member in mourning before burial. An onen is in a state of limbo. They cannot study Torah. They cannot be included in a minyan. They are not supposed to perform a large number of positive commandments. And the reason they are not supposed to do all these things is that their primary focus is meant to be arranging for the burial of their relative. The interment of the body is considered so important that it takes precedence over some of Judaism’s key commandments. For Jews of all levels of observance, the delay in burying a body can lead to a significant amount of added stress during a very painful time.

    No other senior coroner in the UK with whom the Jewish community has a relationship – and there are over a dozen of them – seems to have a problem with Jewish burial requirements. They have all gone out of their way to be helpful in this regard. Ms Hassell should take note - when you are this out of step with your peers, it is worth considering whether it is time to rethink your position.  

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