Burial society refuses funeral, returns baby’s body in cardboard box

Parents of deceased infant tried to keep their son’s body cold using car’s air conditioning after being turned away at cemetery

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

A man walks through a cemetery in Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat /Flash90)
A man walks through a cemetery in Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat /Flash90)

The Jerusalem burial society refused to bury a deceased infant and returned his body to the family in a cardboard box, the family said this week.

Born over a month premature, a son to the Bornstein family died at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem on Friday at four days old.

Although standard procedures stipulate that hospitals coordinate the burial of infants with cemeteries in accordance with halacha, or Jewish law, Joseph Bornstein told Walla News that he and his wife wanted to take care of the arrangements themselves.

Bornstein said that after the hospital gave him the body of his infant son he went to the burial society at Jerusalem’s Sanhedria cemetery, where he was refused permission to bury his son.

The burial society, known locally as the hevra kadisha, insisted that it was following Jewish law, which stipulates that a baby who dies in the first month of his life is treated as a stillborn, and the parents are typically not allowed to participate in the burial or even be told the grave’s location.

Bornstein said that after some negotiating he and a burial society representative reached an agreement that the parents would be told the location of the grave, but not attend the funeral.

The next day however, Bornstein said the organization reneged on the agreement, and he was told to pick up his son’s body from its office at the cemetery.

“He was in a cardboard box just sitting on a bench in office — i couldn’t believe it,” Bornstein said. “So I took it to the car and turned on my air conditioning to try and keep the body cold while we figured out what to do.”

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the chairman of Zaka, Israel’s voluntary emergency response and rescue service, intervened on the parents’ behalf and arranged for the infant to be buried Tuesday at the Mount of Olives cemetery.

“With a little more humanity, this story could have ended much differently,” he said.

“While the burial society acted in accordance with the halacha, their approach lacked compassion, and the father, who was emotionally distressed, should have been treated differently.”

“It’s completely shocking to me that burial is monopolized by the burial society, which takes advantage of people during difficult times in a manner that is completely unacceptable,” Bornstein said. “They treated the body of my son as if it were a dead cat,” he told Walla.

Jerusalem’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Moshe Amar, who formerly served as the country’s chief rabbi, urged the Religious Affaris Ministry and the burial society not to ignore the anguish that the “completely unnecessary” incident caused the Bronsteins.

“There is a special kind of sensitivity that should accompany the funeral and burial process,” he told the Kol Hazman website.

Amar said that although burial societies are generally compliant with Jewish law, adding to person’s emotional distress was unacceptable. He called on the burial society and the government ministry to meet and discuss how to prevent similar mistakes from happening again.

Bornstein said knowing where their son is buried will make it easier for their family to mourn the loss.

Jerusalem’s burial society responded to reports of the incident saying that its workers were bound by the regulations of the Religious Affairs Ministry and were unable to bury the Bornstein’s infant as the family wished.

Last August, following ongoing pressure by parents and NGOs, the the Health and Justice ministries established a joint committee with representatives of the Religious Affairs Ministry to establish new funeral and burial procedures for infants.

The committee determined that the parents of infants who died in their first 30 days would be allowed to decide the funeral and burial procedures.

It further ruled that the burial societies must allow the parents to be present at the funeral and mark the burial plot if they wished.

Also, the committee added that families requesting a civil burial ceremony would be permitted to hold one.

The new regulations were sent out to all of the burial societies in the country, except for a few that were granted an exemption by the ministry after ultra-Orthodox groups said the new procedures were in contravention of Jewish law.

According to the report, the burial society at the Sanhedria cemetery in Jerusalem was among those granted an exemption.

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