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Israel incentivizes proper burials for stillborns to ‘ease suffering of families’

Advocacy group says new changes to payment policy remove final obstacles keeping burial societies from performing funerals for fetuses

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

View of a new underground cemetery at Givat Shaul Cemetery in Jerusalem, on October 30, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of a new underground cemetery at Givat Shaul Cemetery in Jerusalem, on October 30, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government recently implemented new regulations to incentivize religious burial societies to perform interment ceremonies for stillbirths, in what a leading advocate called a significant benefit for the parents in these tragic cases.

In the Jewish tradition, up to the age of 30 days postpartum a baby is still considered a fetus and does not have the status of a full person. If they die, for instance, their families do not follow the same mourning customs as they would for a child who lives past the age of 30 days.

The burial practices for a fetus, a stillbirth or a newborn are also different from most burials. In some communities, it is common for parents to not attend the funeral, or to not even know where their fetus or baby is, because it was buried in an unmarked grave. Until relatively recently, many of the state-funded Jewish burial societies, known in Hebrew as hevrot kadisha, adopted these practices.

After many parents of stillborn babies who did not want to follow what they saw as anachronistic traditions complained, rule changes went into effect in 2014 giving parents the right to decide how to bury their child. These rights were further strengthened with subsequent regulatory changes in 2017. However, despite the official regulations, traditional practices have often still been forced on many parents, who in the immediate trauma of losing a baby were unaware and uninformed of their rights.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there were over 1,200 stillbirths in Israel in 2019.

The Itim religious rights group, which has led the efforts to address the issue, has pushed the government to ensure that the new protocols are followed and that parents of stillbirths and newborns can bury their children as they see fit.

According to Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of Itim, one of the last obstacles in the full practical implementation of these regulations was financial.

The state-run burial societies — hevrot kadisha — are given a certain amount of money from Israel’s National Insurance Institute for each burial they perform. However, they were given far less money to perform full burials for fetuses, leading some societies to claim that it was not in their financial interest to do so despite being legally required to, including the burial societies for major cities like Jerusalem and Netanya.

In recent months, Farber’s group has therefore worked with government ministries and the Knesset’s Labor and Welfare Committee to alter the National Insurance Institute’s policies to increase the payments to the hevrot kadisha for burying stillborn babies.

The Religious Services Ministry, which is responsible for the burial societies, said it too supported the new payment policies.

In mid-July, the Knesset committee signed off on the change, increasing the payments by 300 percent, which, according to Itim, “makes it financially worthwhile for the hevrot kadisha.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM. (Courtesy)

Burial societies will now receive between NIS 2,683 and NIS 3,350 for stillbirths, exactly half the amount they get for all other burials.

“This took away the last obstacle that prevented the burial societies from implementing these rules,” Farber told The Times of Israel.

“Hopefully this means that more families can get the rights that they deserve. From my perspective, that’s a wonderful thing,” he said.

Farber explained that the remaining disparity in payments is due to the practical differences in how a newborn is buried compared to a baby older than 30 days — namely without burial shrouds and requiring a smaller plot.

“Improving services for the stage of burial is a critical move in easing [the suffering] of families at one of the most painful times in their lives,” Itim said.

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