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Fear of coroner prompts Jews to move before they die

Some Jews are now considering moving to other areas of the capital, or making aliyah, to avoid any burial delay

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

    A controversial coroner’s refusal to respect Jewish burial requirements has led some Jews to consider moving house rather than die under her jurisdiction.

    Mary Hassell, the head of St Pancras coroner’s court, is being investigated over her unwillingness to grant quick burials to members of the Jewish and Muslim communities in north London.

    Such is the distress sparked by Ms Hassell’s policy that families “should wait in line” for the release of relatives’ bodies, that some Jews are now considering moving to other areas of the capital, or making aliyah, to escape her authority. “We are terrified at what this woman is doing to this community,” said Ita Symons, the chief executive of the Agudas Yisrael Housing Association in Stamford Hill.

    “I have acquired a burial plot in Jerusalem, and I will, God willing, try and make sure that before I pass away I will not be in this country.

    “I shall get onto a plane — even on a stretcher — and I will not let this women get her powers over me.”

    Mrs Symons is also the director of the Schonfeld Square care home, where more than 80 elderly Jewish people live.

    “I can’t tell you how much care we are taking so we don’t fall in to the trap of Mary Hassell,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to protect our clients, and not let them fall into her hands.”

    Rachel Cohen is the founder of the Bikur Cholim Health Organisation, one of the largest Jewish health organisations in North London.

    “We have a few hundred clients on our database,” she said. “Many are very, very elderly and many of them are seriously sick. I feel it is absolutely unfair that this pressure should be put on families for no reason at all. Many of them are very concerned.

    “My husband is American, and he has many time voiced that as soon as we marry off our youngest, he’d like to retire to Israel simply because of this issue. He’s 67. This is something which is not a first choice, because we have a large family and most of my children are living here. This is something that we feel that we are being forced to consider, not that we want to consider.”

    Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, the principal of the Yesodei Hatorah school in Stamford Hill, said he had given specific guidance to his family should he fall ill.

    He said: “I am instructing my children that if there’s going to be a danger to my life, I’d like to be moved from my home in Hackney to my daughter’s in Haringey. I am concerned that there will be a situation where my wishes [regarding a speedy burial] will not be respected.”

    The borough of Haringey is under the jurisdiction of a different coroner.

    Since 2013, when Ms Hassell assumed her position, a significant number of Jewish families have seen the burial of their loved ones delayed due to her coroner’s office.

    Last October she informed a Jewish burial society that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family”.

    Under both Jewish and Islamic law, the dead are supposed to be interred as quickly as possible.

    The Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS) has launched an official complaint against Ms Hassell.

    Apart from Ms Hassell’s insistence on the “cab rank rule” – first come, first served – for burials, regardless of religious requirements, she had also previously informed Jewish communal representatives that she would be revoking a 2015 protocol which allowed Orthodox Jews to observe shemirah – “guarding” the deceased prior to burial.

    The JC understands that the protocol has now been reinstated, following a meeting on Tuesday between Ms Hassell and representatives from the Carmel Jewish funeral home in Hackney.

    Ms Hassell was today due to meet Marie Van Der Zyl, vice president of the Board of Deputies and Sidney Sinitsky of the AYBS.

    “We are going to put our concerns very robustly and very clearly, because there is no doubt in our minds that Jewish burials can be accommodated,” Ms Van Der Zyl told the Board’s monthly meeting on Sunday.

    She added: “It’s not just an Orthodox issue, it’s a Jewish issue. We’ve had meetings at the Board of Deputies with Charedim, and I have also consulted both Liberal and Reform denominations.”

    She described Ms Hassell as “a person, in my opinion, who has no compassion or any sort of empathy with faith communities.

    “As Jews, we are not asking for priority. We are putting a position forward that anybody who requires a swift burial be given the same treatment.”

    Ms Van der Zyl told the Board that the Jewish Labour peer, Lord Beecham, had asked a question in the House of Lords about the government’s response to the issue.

    A written question was also submitted in the House of Commons by John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley, asking David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, what guidance is issued to coroners on the issue of quick burials.

    Philip Lee MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, responded that the department advised coroners to take account of religious requirements relating to mourning, post-mortem examinations and funerals “where possible”.

    A petition calling for a “compassionate coroner service” has been signed by more than 3,000 people in the Stamford Hill area.

    It will be sent to MPs and local councillors.

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