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Breaking the Burial Monopoly

Thursday, February 11, 1999

Three weeks from now in Be'er Sheva, the country's first civil cemetery will be inaugurated. For the daughter of the first two people to be interred there, the moment will be bittersweet.

By Ruth Sinai

Yaakov Ravervi died in November 1996 at the age of 85. Ten days later his wife, Hanna, also died, at the age of 93. In separate wills, they donated their bodies to science. Both also instructed that they be given secular burials. "My father specifically told me 'just make sure the Hevra Kadisha (religious burial society) doesn't touch me,'" recalls their daughter, Ziva Goodman.

Once Goodman started looking into the options for secular burial, she found that it is possible only in kibbutzim, where a plot costs about NIS 14,000. Her parents had donated their bodies to Tel Aviv University in perpetuity - that is, until the research on them is completed (it is also possible to donate a body for one year only) - and therefore Goodman knew she had enough time to search for alternative burial.

However, in July 1998, time ran out. She received notice from the university that the research had ended. She had a choice - either ask the university to bury her parents or do it herself. That is how she came to Menucha Nechona ("Just Repose"), an organization whose goal is to promote civil burial in Israel.

The timing was relatively good. In March 1996, a few months before her parents died, the Civil Cemetery law was passed. However, implementation has been stuck since then because of opposition from the Religious Affairs Ministry and some burial societies. The only project that seemed close to fruition was the civil cemetery in Be'er Sheva. Goodman decided to wait. The university wanted to return the bodies, but Goodman requested an extension. After several requests, the university agreed.

It was worthwhile for Goodman to wait. Three weeks from today, her parents will be buried, inaugurating the first civil cemetery opened in Israel under the new law. A modest opening ceremony is planned for the same day, March 4.

"I have a very good feeling. I'm sure this will be what they wanted. Their will is being carried out in full," Goodman says. Her father requested no eulogies and so it shall be. However, a religious cousin, a Holocaust survivor whom Goodman invited to the burial ceremony after he was distraught that his uncle and aunt had not yet been buried, will recite Kaddish, the mourner's prayer. Goodman does not think her father would have objected.

Menucha Nechona has prepared burial service texts for both secular burials and for various streams of Judaism. Families may choose one version or offer one of their own. Burial in a coffin is also an option as is music during the ceremony, "so as long as it's not a wind orchestra" says Prof. Pinhas Vardin, the head of Menucha Nechona in Be'er Sheva and former head of the Conservative movement in Israel. His organization won the tender for civil burial in Be'er Sheva. In 1996, when it appeared that the new cemetery would be ready in October of that year, it trained purification and burial teams for those also seeking a religious burial.

The minister of religious affairs at the time, Shimon Sheetrit, was an ardent supporter of alternative burial, but "everything stopped after the elections," Vardin says. After repeated requests from the organization in Be'er Sheva to the Religious Affairs Ministry, with which a contract had been signed to obtain funds for developing the area allocated by the Israel Lands Administration, Menucha Nechona appealed to the High Court of Justice. But the groundwork did not begin until the State Attorney's Office informed the Religious Affairs Ministry that it would be unable to defend them in the appeal, Vardin says.

Meanwhile, four dunams have been prepared of the 46 dunams allocated for the cemetery, which is 100 meters outside the city - so the municipal or religious council cannot intervene in what happens there. About 120 of 600 planned graves for this area are ready. Burial will be done on two tiers. Vardin plans to bury members of the same family in each two-tiered plot.

He is now trying to obtain permission for the organization to build the second level above ground. In Spain, he says, burial is done in 10 levels and a ladder is used to place flowers on the uppermost grave.

The national chairwoman of Menucha Nechona, Miriam Konda, hopes the opening of the Be'er Sheva cemetery will place the issue on the national agenda, helping to promote the establishment of alternative cemeteries in other cities.

Since the current government took office, matters have not progressed in this area. In Haifa, for example, where land was allocated, former housing minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer promised an access road would be paved, but that hasn't happened.

In Jerusalem, an area was designated, but not developed.

"Apparently, without the High Court of Justice, nothing will move," Konda says. The law has yet to win a High Court appeal, but now two local organizations are planning to file appeals because Orthodox cemeteries are being opened in their cities.

According to the law, anywhere such a cemetery is opened, space for an alternative cemetery must also be allocated.

Since the law was passed, Konda says, the organization has received requests from hundreds of people - all Jewish - seeking civil burial, but in the meantime their only option is Orthodox burial or private interment in a kibbutz - which is often prohibitively expensive.

The burial societies have allocated plots for people whose Jewishness is uncertain, but most do not allow an alternative burial service in Jewish cemeteries.

A poll commissioned by a Rabin government ministerial committee found that approximately 10 percent of Israel's residents are interested in alternative burial - something that may affect the income of the country's 65 burial societies. The National Insurance Institute is supposed to cover the cost of a basic alternative burial. The families pay for extras, like a coffin, for example.

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