Funeral director ‘undermined’ by Orthodox community leaders

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Funeral director ‘undermined’ by Orthodox community leaders

One of Britain's most experienced Jewish funeral directors accuses leaders of Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation of systematically undermining him to the point he could not work.

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Headstone with a star if David at a cemetery (Thinkstock)
Headstone with a star if David at a cemetery (Thinkstock)

One of the UK’s longest-serving Jewish funeral directors claims he was systematically “undermined” by leaders of his Orthodox community, to the point where he was unable to work.

Martin Gross, 55, who has worked as an independent funeral director for 26 years – 25 of those for the Brighton and Hove community, had a three-year renewable contract with the community, with a consultation period held, before the contract was signed, about six months earlier.

However, when his latest contract was due to expire he claims “nobody contacted me”, and he understood he was unlikely to receive a new contract as his role had been taken over by Bungard, a non-Jewish funeral company.

Jonathan Conway, who is a Cohen and the son of the vice-chair of Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation, (BHHC) Susan Conway, was named in 2018 as the unpaid director of the cemetery. Orthodox Judaism places strict restrictions on where a Cohen can go in cemeteries. 

Gross, who claimed he had frequent clashes with Conway over how the cemetery was run, nevertheless continued to work – without a contract – until just before last Yom Kippur.

Matters came to a head over a funeral due to take place on a Friday last October. Gross said he asked the gravedigger to prepare the grave the day before. “But when he arrived, the equipment, which belonged to me, necessary to get the grave ready, had disappeared. He asked the caretaker what had happened, but she did not know. I learned Mr Conway had asked the local council to destroy this equipment and they had agreed.”

Faced with possibly having to delay the funeral, Gross borrowed equipment elsewhere and the grave was dug in time.

He expressed his concerns to BHHC, chair David Seidel four days after this funeral. He spoke of his unhappiness with Conway and that he “could not work in this way”.

Seidel, claims Gross, asked him if that meant he had resigned. He said he had not, but heard he was understood to have done so.

In February 2020, Gross was offered a new contract, seen by Jewish News, which he rejected as “insulting”. It requires that the undertaker “shall conduct himself professionally and… in a courteous manner”. Gross said he always spoke to people appropriately and there was no need to stipulate this. A clause relating to tahara – the preparation of cleaning a body for burial – was unneccessary as  Gross said he had been doing this for 25 years. 

Rader refused to speak to Jewish News about the issue, saying he “would not comment” and “you have got all your facts wrong”, but would not clarify what was incorrect.

In a statement, Seidel said: “Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation does not discuss or comment upon its discussions or negotiations with employees or contractors”. He did not reply when invited to change his mind.

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