It’s an issue that causes the calmest people to seethe with anger. Few of us understand burial schemes even when they work smoothly. But should you move shuls, the lack of any transfer arrangements means that at the very time you are at your most vulnerable — when a loved one has died — you can be hit with a crippling bill.
And it is all the more galling because you may have paid thousands into a scheme, only to see the money disappear.
In a case reported recently by the JC, a couple had paid 45 years of burial society dues, first in London then in Southend. When they later moved to Devon to be closer to family and the husband died, he was buried locally. His widow was stunned to have to pay £8,000 because their burial society membership did not cover the cost of an out-of-town funeral. She received just £450, remitted by the original London community to Southend.
Burial schemes usually lock in members, making it problematic to transfer benefits.
They also make it difficult to switch from one synagogue denomination to another — a practical block on religious freedom of choice.
While the annual cost of a burial subscription is relatively inexpensive at £40 to £70 a year, it usually comes tied to membership of a synagogue, which costs hundreds of pounds annually. If an elderly couple want to relocate —often from the regions to London — to be near children and grandchildren, the cost of moving burial rights can be prohibitive.
They could choose to keep up their synagogue and burial subscriptions in their original community — some communities still offer reduced country membership.
Alternatively, they can join a synagogue closer to their new home but will usually be charged an entry fee to join its burial scheme from scratch.
A 78-year-old man who had been a member of a burial society in Glasgow for some 60 years but was thinking of moving to London, told the JC last year he had been quoted £4,000 to enter the United Synagogue burial scheme — including a 20 per cent discount.
Burial society boards are at pains to point out they do not operate saving schemes, whereby someone builds up an individual fund to provide for their funeral. They liken them to insurance policies. If you die while a member, the scheme pays out. If you leave, the policy effectively expires.
Howard Gordon, vice-president of Manchester and District Council of Synagogues, said when the possibility of more flexible arrangements between burial boards was discussed some years ago, they were unable to reach agreement.
“People were jealous of their members and didn’t want to lose them,” he said.
Some regional boards felt they could not afford to let people move money away, depleting the general fund to meet local responsibilities.
Those leaving a US congregation can transfer some of their burial funds. “Our policy for over a decade,” said Melvyn Hartog, US head of burial, “is that, when a member moves to another Orthodox burial scheme, we will make a payment of 80 per cent of whatever they have paid to us. This means that the bulk of their past payments go towards ensuring they continue to be cared for.”
But he added that “more people move from a regional community to London than the other way round. While some of the larger regional burial schemes will make a transfer of funds in the same way we do, we understand smaller regional communities can’t afford to do this, so we feel we have a particular duty to help in such cases.”
Members of the US’s new regional communities such as Sheffield and Birmingham Central have been given the option of joining the US burial society without an entry fee.
For individuals joining the burial scheme from outside the US, “there is a fee for those over 40, which understandably rises with age,” Mr Hartog said. “For a 50-year-old the entrance fee would be £795, for a 60-year-old it would be £1,500.
“Wherever this causes difficulty, this is looked at on a case-by-case basis and will often be reduced by more than 50 per cent Our role is to do what we can to help. In the first instance, we may look to allow a family to pay over a number of years, which in a lot of cases will be acceptable. If there is still a problem, then we will look to find an affordable solution.”
Another large burial society, the Jewish Joint Burial Society, which covers 38 Reform, Liberal, Masorti and independent Orthodox communities around the country, generally does not offer refunds to those who leave the scheme.
"You can’t be an individual member of the society - you have to belong to a synagogue,” explained Mitzi Kalinsky, JJBS senior sexton. " If membership is continuous, then a funeral is arranged free of charge; a burial at Cheshunt or a cremation at Hoop Lane. If a member of a London synagogue who has joined the JJBS before the age of 50 chooses a funeral elsewhere, the JJBS will currently pay up to £2,450 towards the funeral; or £3,300 for a regional synagogue member.
"Alternatively, JJBS subscribers can transfer their funeral membership, free of charge, to another of the 38 synagogues which belong to the scheme."
The payout to a regional member who is buried in a different location other than that covered by the scheme is higher, she said, "purely because out-of-London funerals cost more.”
This was because “local councils have found them a lucrative form of income. They have a captive audience.”
If someone had joined the JJBS at 60 and was buried at an alternative location, they would receive 25 per cent less.
But the JJBS has no mutual transfer arrangements with other movements such as the US, although she said, “we have tried on several occasions to get something in place”.
Differing fee structures among movements complicated the issue. “Everything is worked out actuarially,” Ms Kalinsky explained. “It is extremely difficult for any of the movements to have transfer arrangements between each other because we work out everything on a different basis. It is not as easy as people think it should be.”
In the meantime, some people are looking at ways to bring more choice into the burial market.
S & P Sephardi Community members pay a lump sump to its Fitna Beth Haim (burial society) scheme, entitling them to a cheaper burial.
“For example, a member with Finta Beth Haim could pay £2,775 for a funeral as they paid a sum in advance - and a member without Finta Beth Haim would pay £5,300,” explained Alison Rosen, the community’s executive director.
The initial lump sum varies with age starting at £275 if paid before the age of 23, rising to £2,650 for someone in their late 60s. It covers a couple and unmarried children under 19; a single person is charged half the amount. But the lump sum is not refundable if a person leaves the community. The Federation of Synagogues said it does not have burial transfer arrangements.
But some organisations are working to make things easier and less costly.
The Glasgow Hebrew Burial Board is unusual in having long allowed people to subscribe to it without being a synagogue member. It covers the cost of burial but does not provide an officiating minister (who, it says,“will normally charge a fee”).
Now the JC understands a group in London is hoping to launch a burial service which will not require synagogue affiliation.
The Masorti movement is also dissatisfied with the status quo. “We have been approached by a lot of people who would like to join our synagogues,” said its chief executive Matt Plen, “but feel they can’t because their burial rights aren’t portable. We are concerned. We want people to join the synagogue of their choice. We are currently considering possible solutions.”
One Liberal synagogue, Northwood and Pinner, has taken the plunge. Last year, it waived burial society entry fees for new members aged from 50 to 69 on a trial basis.
New NPLS members pay an annual synagogue subscriptions of around £800 a year, which includes a burial contribution.
But whereas a couple aged 69 previously would have had to pay an additional fee of £1,764 to join the burial society, “they now pay nothing”, said synagogue treasurer Philip Austin.
As a result of the policy, “we got 30 new members in six months. We have just agreed to perpetuate it. The value of new members exceeds the cost of what we are not getting [from the burial entry fee].”
The scheme has also been extended to those in the 70-75 bracket. While the burial society fee has not been waived altogether for this age group, it has been reduced to £400.
One couple who have taken advantage are Michael and Vivien Keen from Harrow Weald.
Mr Keen explained that, after not belonging to a synagogue for many years, they were looking to join a burial society and had “shopped around”.
They found out about the NPLS scheme after a friend read about it in the JC. “It was a financial decision,” he said. “My wife, who is 69, didn’t have to pay any joining fee, while since I am 74, I had to pay a nominal sum which was reasonable. It was ‘buy one, get one free’.”
And since the Keens have become members of Northwood and Pinner, they have found “we quite like the synagogue and the communal activities”.
Mr Austin believes other synagogues will see the benefits of change, too. “We don’t know how many people didn’t join us previously because of the burial society entry fee. But there were a lot who phoned up and when they were told about the fee, you never heard from them again. It was a barrier to joining the synagogue.”