The furore around a London coroner’s office has deepened this week after further cases emerged of Jewish burials delayed from taking place. The actions of Mary Hassell, the senior coroner at St Pancras coroner’s office, were described as being “unlawful” and having “beggared belief”.
Nicola Sinclair, whose father Barry Haffner died at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead on December 20, had to make 210 phone calls to the coroner’s office before she was eventually able to bury her father on December 24.
Last week, the JC revealed how Ms Hassell’s office had told the family of a deceased man, Barry Davis, that it would take at least two weeks to conduct an autopsy before any funeral could be held.
Only after the JC contacted Ms Hassell’s office were the family informed that the autopsy would in fact take place within the next 24 hours.
In a separate case, the JC has seen an exchange of letters between Ms Hassell and representatives of the Jewish community in Hackney, in which the coroner reveals 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.”
This is despite Jewish and Islamic law holding that the bodies of a deceased should be buried as quickly as possible (ideally on the same day), while others prefer to wait before burying or cremating a loved one.
Ms Hassell’s policy is described as “unlawful” in a legal letter sent by Trevor Asserson, the lawyer representing Stamford Hill’s Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS).
“It amounts to a blanket and disproportionate refusal, in the exercise of your statutory powers, to respect the religious beliefs of those within your jurisdiction, including Jewish and Muslim people, whose religious beliefs require speedy burial following death,” the letter goes on to say.
Mr Asserson told the JC that Mrs Hassell has “shown a total disregard for, or ignorance of, the law in deciding never to give priority to ‘faith deaths’. Her conduct demonstrates what I consider to be a gross disregard for the religious sensibilities, as well as the legal rights, of the Muslim and Jewish families whose deceased relatives come under her control.”
In the letters, Ms Hassell also says that she has revoked a 2015 protocol on the guarding of bodies. Judaism stipulates that a body should not be left alone until it is buried, invoking the concept of shemirah — “guarding” — the deceased until burial.
Previously, apart from in clear cases of murder, Ms Hassell had permitted the bodies of Jewish people to be kept at the Carmel burial home in Stamford Hill under specific conditions. There they can be guarded by members of the Jewish community.
However, the senior coroner says she has decided that the bodies of Jewish people “will now go to the mortuary as everyone else does while awaiting a decision by the sitting coroner, and will remain in that mortuary after any scan or invasive autopsy, until the coroner makes the decision to release to the family.”
It is not possible to effectively guard a body under Jewish law within such a mortuary.
The letters were part of an exchange that took place after the death of Aharon Barzevski, on October 21. Mr Barzevski’s body was still unburied by the afternoon of October 24, after the coroner’s court refused to release it.
An officer of the coroner’s court then ordered that the body be taken from the Carmel funeral home to the Whittington hospital in north London.
Adath Yisroel Burial Society (AYBS) in Hackney was aware that a shortage of staff at the hospital meant that there would be a further delay before visual and digital examinations could be carried out. Their request that the body should instead be taken to Oxford — where there was a doctor available to carry out a non-invasive autopsy — was denied. It was only released for burial on the evening of October 25.
Five days later, Ms Hassell contacted Jewish community representatives, accusing them of having “bullied” members of her staff in an effort to expedite the burial process.
Last year Ms Hassell was formally reprimanded by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office for publicising a letter in which she also alleged that she was being bullied by the Jewish community.
Ms Hassell also complained to Jewish communal representatives in October that the Burial Society had refused to deliver the body to the mortuary at the Whittington Hospital in north London. She said that this was why she was revoking the 2015 protocol on shemirah.
Rabbi Asher Gratt, a member of the AYBS for more than 40 years, said that Ms Hassell’s claim that the AYBS had failed to comply with the order to transfer Mr Barzevski’s body to the Whittington was “a sham — a complete fabrication. We wanted to be 100 per cent certain to keep within the rules.
“So we took the van [with the body] and parked it in the car park of the Whittington hospital, just in case we got a phone call that we needed to deliver a body to that mortuary, so there should be no delay.”
Rabbi Gratt said he had “no words to describe the frustration and the pain that I have witnessed in the last five years amongst vulnerable, bereaved families, through this woman. It beggars belief that we should be going through these sort of issues in a democratic society.
“We have had such a good relationship with every single coroner other than her. We could pick up the phone and call them in the middle of the night, and they would go out of their way to help.”
In 2015 Ms Hassell lost a judicial review brought by the family of an Orthodox Jewish woman who resisted an order by the senior coroner for an invasive autopsy. The judge described Ms Hassell’s decision as “flawed.”
Mohamed Omer, a spokesperson for the Gardens of Peace Islamic cemetery, supported the criticism of Ms Hassell. He said that “the Muslim Community has also been subjected to delays by the same coroner’s office.
“We support the position taken by the Jewish community as their requirements for burials are similar to that of the Muslim faith.”
St Pancras coroner’s court told the JC on Wednesday that no coroners were available for comment.