Concerns about delays in the release of bodies for burial have been raised amid reports they are interfering with the cultural and religious Muslim and Jewish practices of burying the dead as soon as is practicable after death[1]. This debate is the latest in a long-running dispute in the UK, which has specifically involved senior coroner Mary Hassell and the St Pancras Coroner’s Court[2].

The issue was again brought to light in October 2017 when the coroner’s office was criticised for delaying the burial of a Jewish man, Aharon Barzevski, and then again in December 2017, after the coroner’s office told the family of a highly-regarded Jewish community figure, Barry Davis, that it would take two weeks to conduct an autopsy. The family reportedly expressed their upset about this ruling, but “experienced great difficulty” in communicating with Hassell about the case. It was only after the JC, a Jewish publication, contacted the office for comment that the office agreed to perform the autopsy within twenty-four hours[3].

Hassell has indicated that she will not prioritise the release of bodies on religious grounds, instead stating that she follows the “cab rank rule”[4] and the JC reports that in response, some Jewish people are considering moving out of the borough in the jurisdiction of her office to prevent their burials being delayed[5]. The issue is perhaps made more sensitive by the fact that the jurisdiction which Hassell’s office covers includes Tower Hamlets, home to the UK’s biggest Muslim community, and Hackney, home to the biggest concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Europe[6].

Mitzi Kalinsky, from the Jewish Joint Burial Society, advised Davis’ family and commented in response, “[w]e have had problems with this coroner in the past, although not recently. I am sure the family would like me to say she could be doing more. It has been difficult to get through to her. Communicating has been difficult”. Davis’ MP, Tulip Siddiq, also commented, “[i]t is vital that local representatives stand up for religious freedoms, and I will be keen to raise the matter with the coroner in the New Year”[7].

Siddiq is among a number of UK politicians who have raised concerns on the issue, including the Jewish Labour peer, Lord Beecham. Labour cabinet minister, Councillor Abdul Hai, has said Hassell should relocate to an area with “less faith sensitivities”[8]. The mayor of Tower Hamlets has also written to Hassell to express his concern about the loss of confidence in her. He criticised her “insensitive and discriminatory” actions for ignoring the needs of the Jewish and Muslim religious communities. He told the East London Advertiser, “[t]his is clearly unacceptable”, “I want answers for our residents in Tower Hamlets”[9]. More than 3,000 people have also signed a petition calling for a “compassionate coroner service”[10].

Jewish leaders (including the Chief Rabbi[11]) have subsequently called for Hassell to be sacked, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Adath Yisrael Burial Society (ABYS) plan to write to the Lord Chancellor and justice secretary, David Gauke, and the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett, to request her removal from her post[12]. The Judicial Conduct Investigations Office has also received a formal complaint against her[13].

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London who is a Muslim, has backed the Board of Deputies in this recent clash and welcomed its decision to write to the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary. He has urged Hassell to show “respect for families and faith communities”, stating, “[i]f there’s no good reason to delay releasing a body, or if there’s no good reason to conduct an invasive post-mortem, a coroner should respect the wishes of families and communities”. He also pointed out that he thinks most coroners in the UK are very respectful of religious and cultural sensitivities, so he cannot explain the actions of Hassell[14]. The Muslim Council of Britain shares these concerns[15], referencing their 2014 submission to the All-Party Parliamentary Group of Funerals and Bereavement inquiry dealing with burial delays[16].

Both St Pancras Coroner’s Court and Hassell have refused to comment on the dispute, although a letter by Hassell and obtained by the New Journal states she is “very familiar with the Jewish and Muslim religions’ teaching” and “always take these into account”. She acknowledges the prevalence of faith communities within her jurisdiction but says she cannot prioritise them over others simply because of their faith[17].

When asked what guidance is issued to coroners on this matter, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice responded that coroners were advised to be sensitive to religious requirements relating to post-mortems, mourning, and funerals “where possible”[18].

The delay in releasing bodies is not the only aspect of this coroner’s office’s sensitivity for religious and cultural practices which has been questioned before[19]. In 2015, a Jewish family were made to defend their decision to resist a coroner’s order for an invasive autopsy on a relative instead of scan in the High Court. The High Court came out in favour of the family, calling Hassell’s decision “flawed”[20]. Both the Jewish and Islamic faiths “view invasive postmortems as desecration, preferring CT body scans and autopsies only as a last resort”[21]. Hassell also informed representatives from the Jewish community of her plans to revoke a 2015 protocol which allowed Orthodox Jews to observe shemirah, the guarding of the dead before they are buried, although this has recently reportedly been reinstated[22].

The issue has been widely reported on and a search on Twitter reveals that a few commentators have expressed concern that those who are not members of Jewish and Muslim communities may be disadvantaged if Muslim and Jewish burials are prioritised.

[1] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018.

[2] Welch, 2017; Sherwood, 2018; McLennan, 2018.

[3] Welch, 2017.

[4] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018; Sugarman, 2018; Sherwood, 2018; JTA, 2018.

[5] Sugarman, 2018.

[6] Sherwood, 2018.

[7] Welch, 2017.

[8] McLennan, 2018.

[9] King, 2018.

[10] Sugarman, 2018.

[11] Burgess, 2018.

[12] Sherwood, 2018.

[13] Sherwood, 2018.

[14] Welch, 2018.

[15] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018.

[16] Muslim Council of Britain, 2014.

[17] McLennan, 2018; Rose, 2018.

[18] Sugarman, 2018.

[19] Welch, 2017.

[20] Welch, 2017; Rose, 2018.

[21] Sherwood, 2018.

[22] Sugarman, 2017.

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JTA. (2018) ‘Community Leaders Want London Coroner Removed Over Delayed Jewish Burials’. [online] 22 January. [Accessed 31 January 2018].

King, L. (2018) ‘Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs enters row over coroner Mary Hassell withdrawing special burial arrangements for Jewish and Muslim people”. [online] 24 January. [Accessed 31 January 2018].

McLennan, W. (2018) ‘Board of Deputies of British Jews ask justice secretary to fire coroner Mary Hassell’. [online] 23 January. [Accessed 31 January 2018].

Muslim Council of Britain. (2014) ‘RE: Inquiry into delays between death and the burial or cremation of the deceased’. [online] 30 June. [Accessed 31 January 2018].

Muslim Council of Britain. (2018) ‘The MCB shares concerns over delays in releasing bodies for burial’. [online] 25 January. [Accessed 31 January 2018].

Rose, E. (2018) ‘Coroner criticised over Jewish and Muslim burials’. [online] 12 January. [Accessed 31 January 2018].

Sherwood, H. (2018) ‘Jewish leaders call for London coroner to be fired over burial delays’. [online] 19 January. [Accessed 31 January 2018].

Sugarman, D. (2018) ‘Fear of coroner prompts Jews to move before they die’. [online] 18 January. [Accessed 31 January 2018].

Welch, B. (2017) ‘Coroner’s u-turn in dispute with Jewish family over burial delay’. [online] 20 December. [Accessed 31 January 2018].

Welch, B. (2018) ’Sadiq Khan backs Jewish community in coroner dispute’. [online] 22 January. [Accessed 31 January 2018].