Struggles Over Kavod Hameis Continue With London Coroner

A struggle over the burial of an elderly Stamford Hill resident is keeping the community’s ongoing struggle over kavod hameis in the forefront.

The Adas Yisrael chevrah kaddisha drafted a letter which they emailed to local residents, urging that it be sent to the authorities. The letter calls for intervention regarding Senior Coroner Mary Hassell’s inaction in the case, and also reveals the community’s anguish.

“Our religious rights and respect to our dead is being trampled on in a most humiliating manner with no regard to our pain and suffering. We are being treated with contempt and indifference, and with total callousness to what we consider sacred. She shows no regard for the wishes of the living and deceased, which are being ignored.”

Mrs. Esther Kestenbaum, a”h, a Holocaust survivor, was niftar in a local nursing home on Sunday, December 26. The family and the chevrah kaddisha quickly attempted to contact the office of the district coroner (the equivalent of the medical examiner), hoping to expedite burial. However, as has occurred many times over the past year, Mrs. Hassell had made no accommodation to be reached outside of regular office hours. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the office was also closed the next day, a legal holiday in Great Britain.

Upon the request of the chevrah kaddisha, local police contacted Mrs. Hassell to alert her of the issue, but there was still no response. The result was one to which the London community has become all too accustomed: The family was not able to receive the necessary clearance until Tuesday morning, after which Mrs. Kestenbaum was laid to rest, three days after her passing.

The case is hardly an isolated incident. Mrs. Hasell, who served the Inner London district, has clashed on many occasions with the large Jewish and Muslim communities under her jurisdiction. Just a few weeks ago, a similar scenario played out after the tragic petirah of a 20-year-old young woman, also from Stamford Hill.

This past summer, a class action led by representatives of the community won a judicial review against Hassell’s office, forcing the coroner to allow families to opt for non-invasive scans in cases where a post-mortem investigation is deemed necessary.

“She has lost four times in court, but still has not learned her lesson,” Rabbi Asher Gratt, a spokesman for the chevrah kaddisha, told Hamodia, referring also to the judicial review as well as to other occasions when courts ruled that the coroner must accommodate the religious beliefs of constituents.

Rabbi Gratt said that despite the ongoing struggle, he was “cautiously optimistic” that a solution to the “out-of-hours” issue was on the horizon, saying that consistent outcry from the community was “having a strong impact.” He said that askanim are working together with local community councils to arrange for alternative coroners to be available for emergency situations.