A Jewish burial society has called for the removal of a London coroner over delayed Jewish burials.
Mary Hassell, the senior coroner at the St. Pancras coroner’s office in central London, told Jewish leaders in a letter that “no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family.” She also said in the same letter to Jewish community leaders that she would no longer allow Jewish bodies to be held at a local Jewish funeral home, instead of the mortuary, to enable shemirah, or guarding by fellow Jews, until their burials.
She also has suggested members of her staff have been “bullied or intimidated” by Jewish community representatives calling to try to expedite burials.
The Adath Yisroel Burial Society, based in Stamford Hill told The Guardian that it will demand a judicial review this month unless the coroner retracts her new protocol. The society’s lawyers said the policy “amounts to a blanket and disproportionate refusal” to respect religious beliefs that require a speedy burial.
The society made the threat after several instances in which families had to wait long periods of time or make up to 200 calls to get a body released for burial.
Hassell, originally from Wales, has long provoked the ire of religious Jews and Muslims, whose traditions dictate the need for a prompt burial – ideally on the same day – and the avoidance of invasive autopsies wherever possible.
Her office has ruled that “no death shall be prioritised in any way,” but Trevor Asserson, a lawyer representing Stamford Hill’s Adath Yisroel Burial Society, said: “It amounts to a blanket and disproportionate refusal, in the exercise of your statutory powers, to respect the religious beliefs of those within your jurisdiction.”
Marie Van Der Zyl, a vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Sidney Sinitsky of the Adath Yisroel Burial Society are scheduled to meet on Friday with Hassell to discuss the issue.
In 2015, Hassell lost a judicial review brought by the family of an Orthodox Jewish woman. Hassell’s office insisted that the woman have an invasive autopsy, which is against Orthodox law. Last year Hassell was formally reprimanded by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office for publicising a letter in which she alleged that she was being bullied by the Jewish community.
Last week, Jewish News reported that London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden Andrew Dismore, called for the Lord Chancellor to sack Hassell.
The former MP for Hendon until 2010, called for the corner to go, who he said has faced “one court case after another,” with hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal costs.
He said the cases had been “brought by bereaved families who should have been given space to grieve, not forced to the courtroom to obtain respect for their cultural expectations”.
Of Hassell, Dismore wrote: “One would have thought that before applying for the job, she might have reflected on the needs of one of the country’s biggest Jewish communities and our large and growing Muslim population.”
He added: “Our corner of London is amongst the most diverse in the country. Ms Hassell’s insensitive behaviour– probably unique in our local public services- flies in the face of harmonious community relations and cannot be tolerated any longer.”
Calling for her to be fired, Dismore said: “It is long overdue that she should go. The Lord Chancellor should sack her, if he cares about the reputation of our legal system.”