Israel gets tough on grave matters

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The Independent Online
Jerusalem - Revelations that Israeli gravediggers earn up to pounds 3,700 a month - and body-washers almost as much - have pushed the government into proposing radical reform of an Israeli cemetery, writes Patrick Cockburn. Religious Affairs Minister, Shimon Shetreet, says his ministry is also setting up a 24-hour hotline on how and where to get buried without undue expense.

Impetus for reform came from a scandal surrounding the state-owned burial society in Tel Aviv whose 80 members have a monopoly of burying some 40 per cent of the population. Its manager, Yisrael Erlich, was found to be paying himself pounds 300,000 a year and his subordinates equally inflated amounts.

Other signs that all was not well in the cemetery were controversies over the difficulty of a non-Jewish Israeli getting buried at all. Officials say 150,000 Russian immigrants are not Jewish in the eyes of the Rabbinate. Problems also arose over the burial society's insistence that inscriptions on headstones be in Hebrew only.

Meeting with the heads of the burial societies in Jerusalem this week, Mr Shetreet insisted that they accept a range of reforms before their licences were renewed. Grudgingly they agreed. In future gravediggers and other members of the burial societies may be paid no more than three times the average Israeli wage of pounds 11,200 a year. They must allow inscriptions not in Hebrew and part of each cemetery must be allocated to those who may not be Jewish. The price of a grave will in future be fixed by the ministry.

There is no mention of a demand by the gravediggers last month, when they protested by refusing to bury anybody before 4pm, that they be given two grave plots free of charge every five years for personal use or onward sale as a perk of the job.

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