For the Jewish Chronicle July 20 2018
It would be hard to think of someone better suited to his job than the avuncular Melvyn Hartog, head of the United Synagogue’s Burial Society. The very opposite of the Grim Reaper, Hartog exudes warmth, kindness and sympathy — in a conversation repeatedly interrupted by calls on his mobile phone.
And yet, he is an exasperated man. The speech he regularly makes to shuls and schools reflects that exasperation, as its title indicates: “Talking about death won’t kill you”.
Hartog believes that there is a widespread, and lamentable, ignorance within Anglo-Jewry about death — its rituals and the reasons behind them. And while he is doing his best to try to bring the community’s young people up to speed, he says it’s not just the youth who are lacking.
Controversially, perhaps, Hartog declares: “A cemetery is not a frightening place. You should take your children, your grandchildren, and talk about your family history”.
Part of the problem, Hartog acknowledges, is that it is possible to reach your 30s or 40s without ever having been to a funeral. So you don’t know what to do, or what is expected of you at a funeral or a shivah.
Unfortunately, however, tragic accidents, cruel disease, and teenage suicides have become the other side of the equation. And those left behind in these circumstances are equally clueless as to what to do next.
The biggest problem in Hartog’s in-tray is to do with families where a young person has died unexpectedly. “I spend as much time as I can with them and we — the US and the Beth Din — will bend over backwards to accommodate their wishes, provided it doesn’t breach halachah.
“But very often the person that has died does not belong to a shul or a burial board — and that’s where the problems start.”
Even the most assimilated of families make the United Synagogue their first port of call, says Hartog. One of his first — and probably most reassuring — responses is to tell a family who have lost someone to suicide that the US “will bury suicides as a normal burial”.
There are costs involved for non-members but Hartog is reluctant to put too much emphasis on these — understandably, since the US currently charges £16,000 to bury a non-member. The Federation of Synagogues charges £9,000. “This money allows us to do many things”, Hartog says. For example, the payments for an MRI scan to avoid a post-mortem, which are £1,000 a time; or tractors and diggers at the cemeteries, (a tractor can cost £48,000), or the kind of behind-the-scenes detective service in which the US goes to extraordinary lengths to establish the Jewish status of the dead person.
If, for example, a person is ill and asks to be buried in a US cemetery, then Hartog and his team, in consultation with the Beth Din, will ask for relevant documentation to be made available to prove they are halachically eligible to be buried according to Jewish rite and custom. “Sometimes we deal with a case of a Holocaust survivor who went away from religion, married out, and then when they knew they were dying, asked to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. So we have to try to get papers from when they left Europe and arrived in this country. We discuss it with the Beth Din, and somebody has to make a call [as to halachic eligibility]”.
It’s important, says Hartog, to establish Jewish status, not just for the person who has died, but also for the families of others in the cemetery. “We can’t bury someone whose Jewish status is in doubt, next to someone who was shomer Shabbat. And we can’t have a separate area for the so-called ‘iffy’ cases”.
By and large, he says, his team is trained to metaphorically hold the hands of those left behind, and guide them through the process. “We always like to say yes, unless it’s absolutely impossible. You’re dealing with a family at its lowest ebb, so it’s incumbent on us to do whatever we can to help and to protect the family.”
People are living longer, says Hartog, but last year the US buried 63 people under the age of 65. “So far this year we’ve done 25 (under 65). The main spike of deaths is in the 70s and 80s”. There are an astonishing 43,000 British Jews buried at Bushey in north London, with the capacity for about 60,000 in the next 20 years or so.
If he could do anything to improve the community attitude to death, he would do two things: first, encourage people, no matter how assimilated, to join a synagogue so that their funeral costs are covered — “people need to see the bigger picture” — and second, and perhaps surprisingly, to get people to think about what they want on their tombstones in the increasingly common event of second marriages.
For long-term genealogy and history purposes, Hartog is keen on having as much information as possible on stones — not just relationships, but the names of those left behind. And he also wants a person to be identified in the Hebrew inscription not just as the son or daughter or their father, but as the son or daughter of their mother, too. Thus, not just “Moshe ben Arie”, but also “Moshe ben Arie v’Leah,” for example.
Wherever possible Hartog and his team try for contingency planning in order to cover difficult situations. One such, which crops up repeatedly, is when someone dies on a Friday night or just before a festival. In such cases there is a message on the US answerphone telling people what to do next.
“If someone dies in hospital, we have the phone number of a non-Jewish undertaker who will go and take the person and keep them in the appropriate conditions until we are ready to proceed with funeral arrangements. We have dealt with this company for many years and they couldn’t be more respectful of our requirements”.
Hartog says there are far too many “old wives’ tales” surrounding death. “I’m always being asked if it’s true that we don’t bury people with tattoos”. With a grin, he tells his questioner, “if there are tattoos on the arm, we slice the arm off”. (This is emphatically not true.) Yet, more seriously, what is true is that the US buries amputated limbs before a person has died, re-uniting the person and their limb after death. “A limb is buried in a grave and the grave is marked for that individual. It’s down to the families to make the hospitals aware of that.”
Aside from dealing with the administration of funerals, Hartog’s team also works with families over stone-settings — and there, he says, the biggest broigeses can occur. “We’ve had fights in cemeteries where we’ve had to call the police. Or we’ve had instances where the week after a stone-setting we find masking tape on the stone, covering up names”. He sighs, and asks, rhetorically, whether these arguments would be what the dead person would have wanted. “It’s sad — and the saddest thing is where I see a family where people aren’t talking to each other.”
For Hartog, 17 years of doing what some might consider a thankless task has left him, ironically, with a cheerful disposition and a mantra: “We are all going to die, but we don’t know when. So we should be more respectful of life”.