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March 22, 2020 7:57 pm

Leading UK Jewish Group Expresses Concern Coronavirus Bill Will Violate Jewish Burial Laws

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery. Photo: Wikicommons.

A leading UK Jewish organization expressed concern on Sunday about a proposed bill granting the government emergency powers to fight the coronavirus, fearing it will interfere with traditional Jewish laws mandating burials of the deceased.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews voiced particular alarm about clauses in the bill related to cremation, which is forbidden under Jewish law, saying of the pandemic’s victims, “It is important that they know that they will be lain to rest in accordance with their wishes.”

The “Coronavirus Bill” will be debated and voted on by Parliament this week, and grants broad emergency powers to the government and medical professionals in order to combat the pandemic.

Regarding cremation, it states, “Personal choice for body disposal will be respected as far as possible, however, only where there is no suitable alternative (for example if safe storage limits were likely to be breached and out of area alternatives were not available), the power to direct may be used to direct whether a body is buried or cremated.”

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“In this respect it has been necessary to disapply section 46(3) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 which prohibits cremation against the wishes of the deceased,” it adds.

This would effectively give medical professionals the ability to override the religious beliefs of the deceased and their survivors in regard to the treatment of their body after death.

Board of Deputies of British Jews President Marie van der Zyl said of the bill’s cremation clauses, “For those that do succumb to this pandemic, it is important that they know that they will be lain to rest in accordance with their wishes. For the overwhelming majority of UK Jews, this means that the deceased must be buried and not cremated.”

“This also applies to a number of other faith communities including Muslims and some Christians,” she pointed out.

“We urge the Government to provide exemptions to proposed legislation to mandate local authorities to take account of the religious beliefs when releasing bodies, and not defaulting to cremation, which will only add to the sorrow of grieving families and go against fundamental freedoms of religion and belief,” she stated.

“It should be noted that such an exemption would not affect mortuary capacity, as Jews and Muslims seek to bury their loved ones — and so remove their bodies from the mortuary — as soon as possible,” van der Zyl said.

Jewish law mandates, with a few exceptions, that the burial of the deceased should take place within a day after death.

Muslim Britons are also deeply concerned by the bill, with MP Naz Shah intending to table an amendment on Monday that states, “Where a deceased is to be cremated and it goes against their religious belief the designated authority must consult the next of kin or Power of Attorney or the relevant local faith institution in so far as reasonably possible to find a suitable alternative before proceeding with the cremation.”

Shah wrote on Facebook that the amendment is intended “to ensure if local authorities reach their capacity, they do not proceed to cremate the deceased from faith backgrounds automatically, without the consultation of family/legal guardians and/or local faith institutions.”

Mandating cremation of coronavirus victims has already been enacted in other countries in order to combat the pandemic.

According to Business Insider, China, where the pandemic originated, has already gone much further than the proposed bill. It banned burials and funeral rituals at the beginning of February, decreeing that the bodies of coronavirus victims must be immediately cremated.

“No farewell ceremonies or other funeral activities involving the corpse shall be held,” the country’s National Health Commission said.

When a patient dies, Chinese medical staff must disinfect and seal off the body, after which a death certificate is issued and the corpse conveyed to the nearest facility equipped to perform cremation.

Family members are permitted to receive the remains after the cremation is performed.

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