Coroner's u-turn in dispute with Jewish family over burial delay

North London coroner criticised by the family of much-loved community figure after telling them it would take two weeks to conduct an autopsy


A coroner’s office which has previously been accused of failing to respect Jewish religious sensitivities has backed down in a dispute over the release of a body for burial - after the JC contacted it for an explanation of its behaviour.

The St Pancras Coroner’s Court was criticised for displaying “shocking insensitivity” by the family of Barry Davis after telling them that it would take two weeks to conduct an autopsy.

Mr Davis, a much-loved community figure, died last Thursday at the age of 72, after suffering from an undiagnosed illness for a number of years. The exact cause of death was unknown.

The coroner’s office informed relatives, some of whom had flown in from Australia and America for the funeral, that it would not be able to carry out an autopsy until December 27 at the earliest, 13 days after Mr Davis’s death.

However on Wednesday, the coroner informed the family that an autopsy would be carried out in the next 24 hours.

The move came only after the JC contacted the coroner, following a request from desperate family members.

The relatives said they had been “deeply distressed” at the attitude of the senior coroner, Mary Hassell, claiming her office had “shut them out” by failing to respond to their inquiries.

Jewish law stipulates that the dead should be buried as soon as possible, ideally on the same day as the death.

Daniel Ryntjes, Mr Davis’ nephew, welcomed the coroner’s decision to bring the autopsy forward but told the JC: “By any standard our treatment up to now had been shocking. The entire family is distraught and deeply distressed. It is interfering with religious burial practice and there is a need for us to mourn and to do it quickly, in accordance with Jewish law.

“The family, from as soon as he died, pretty much their wishes have been shut out of the process. So as well as the timing issue, there’s the issue of the handling of this, and the sensitivity of it.”

Mr Ryntjes said they had experienced great difficulty in communicating with the senior coroner initially, but the family later thanked her for her flexibility.

Mr Davis’ older brother, Ivor, added that it had been an “incredibly emotional time”, which had been exacerbated by the fact that many family members had flown in abroad, and had been left in a “Kafkaesque limbo”.

He said: “This trouble at the coroner’s office was shocking – stunningly shocking. I was gobsmacked. Our level of distress in the circumstances of Barry’s death – our youngest brother – was just awful.

“You expect there will be some blips but to find this monumental obstacle was terrifying and very upsetting. It has disturbed us all.”

In a statement, the family said: "We are deeply grateful for the community rallying around to support our family and close friends of Barry Davis during this distressing time.

"We hope that these processes will be reviewed from a grieving family’s perspective to minimise avoidable delays and uncertainty for an occasion that is already difficult and painful to manage."

Ms Hassell was involved in a long-running dispute with the Jewish and Muslim communities over delays in releasing bodies for burial.

In 2015 the High Court supported a Jewish family who had resisted an order from the coroner for an invasive autopsy on a relative instead of a scan.

Mitzi Kalinsky, of the Jewish Joint Burial Society, who has been advising Mr Davis’s family, told the JC:  “We have had problems with this coroner in the past, although not recently. I am sure the family would like me to say she could be doing more. It has been difficult to get through to her. Communicating has been difficult.”

Mr Davis, of West Hampstead, a member of Shir Hayim Reform shul, was a Yiddish scholar who had been employed as an advisor and voice actor in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

He also won a central role in Steven Berkoff’s 2007 play Sit and Shiver. His brother Ivor said his appearance at the Hackney Empire theatre was of such cultural significance to his family that it was akin to “opening on Broadway”.

He had also volunteered his time in a number of sectors – including as a counsellor for those suffering with suicidal thoughts – and had told friends he was looking forward to attending this year’s Limmud Festival in Birmingham over Christmas.

Fabrizio Manco, Mr Davis’s civil partner with whom he had been in a relationship for 26 years, said he felt frustrated at the way the matter had been handled.

“I felt totally without any support or information. A few seconds after Barry passed away, I was faced with the fact that they would have to perform a post-mortem. I didn’t want any further interventions on Barry’s body. It’s very frustrating that people don’t have a say in this kind of decision.”

Tulip Siddiq, Mr Davis’ local MP, pledged to approach Ms Hassell about the way in which his case has been handled with regard to “the Jewish mourning process”.

She said: “I was sad to learn of the passing of my constituent Barry Davis, who so greatly contributed to life in our local area and beyond. My sincerest thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time.

“I am similarly sorry to learn that Barry’s family are experiencing problems with arranging his burial. Previously, the High Court has been relied on to protect burial rites for faith communities in the UK, and public bodies are fully aware that a swift burial is integral to the Jewish mourning process.

“It is vital that local representatives stand up for religious freedoms, and I will be keen to raise the matter with the coroner in the New Year.”

Marie van der Zyl, the vice president of the Board of Deputies, said the burial delay was "extremely concerning", and the Board would also contact Ms Hassell.

St Pancras Coroner’s Court declined to issue a statement, saying that it does not comment on ongoing post-mortem investigations.

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