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January 22, 2018 1:07 pm

UK Jewish Leaders Call for Ousting of Senior London Coroner in Bitter Row Over Burial Delays

avatar by Ben Cohen

St. Pancras Coroners Court in North London. Photo: Reuters / Andrew Winning.

The UK’s representative Jewish body, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, issued an angry call on Monday for the removal of a senior London coroner who has been locked in dispute with the Jewish and Muslim communities over the disruption of burial ceremonies conducted according to religious law.

Under both Jewish and Islamic law, the bodies of the deceased require burial within one day of death.

In a statement issued on Monday carrying the headline “Hassell must go!”, the Board demanded that Mary Hassell, the senior coroner for Inner North London, be removed from her post.

The demand for Hassell’s removal came after what the Board described as a “deeply disappointing meeting” with the coroner on Friday, where she showed little interest in addressing the Jewish community’s concerns in her work.”

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The row with Hassell broke out at the end of December, when the London Jewish Chronicle reported on several cases of Jewish burials delayed from taking place by Hassell’s directives, causing significant distress to the families involved. One Jewish woman was reported to have made 210 increasingly frantic phone calls to Hassell’s office before her father was released for burial on December 24.

The paper also reported on an exchange of letters between Hassell and representatives of the Jewish community in the East London borough of Hackney — home to a large haredi Jewish population — in which the coroner revealed that “no death will be prioritized in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family, either by coroner’s officers or coroners.”

In the same letter, Hassell confirmed that she would no longer allow the bodies of Jewish deceased to be located at Jewish funeral homes for the purpose of shemirah — the guarding of the body by other Jews — until burial ceremonies commence.

Interviewed by BBC News on Friday after Hassell rejected efforts by Jewish leaders to reach an understanding, the Board’s vice president, Marie Van Der Zyl, said the coroner’s directives were  “disrupting family life to such an extent that people don’t want to die within Inner London North.”

“To say they don’t want to die there, they’re too frightened to die, is something that’s so traumatizing and so against Jewish values, and indeed it affects Muslims as well,” Van Der Zyl said. “It’s at the heart of both of our faiths for there to be speedy burial.”

Abdul Hai — a Muslim councillor in the North London borough of Camden — also called for Hassell to quit, the BBC reported.

In its statement on Monday, the Board noted that “early release of bodies for those families who want it — including Jewish families — is a fulfillment of the basic human rights of family life and religious practice.”

The statement continued: “Not only is Ms Hassell failing to respect those rights, but she shows no inclination to do so. She has lost the confidence of the Jewish community, and appears to have no interest in winning it back.”

The Board said it would be writing to the UK Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, David Gauke, and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, to request Hassell’s removal from her post.

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