Back in the summer of 2015, senior members of the Muslim and Jewish communities in Britain met with the former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the Right Hon Michael Gove MP, and Caroline Dinenage, the Minister of Equalities in the House of Commons.
Mr. Gove reacted with amazement. “Why on earth,” he said, “is she behaving in this way?’”
Since taking over in May, 2013 as the coroner in charge of deaths in Camden and other areas of London, Ms. Hassell has refused to make herself available for religious families whose relatives have died outside of the coroner’s usual weekday working hours. In recent days, as reported in Friday’s Hamodia, the dispute between Coroner Hassell and religiously observant Londoners has reached a boiling point.
For Jews, of course, and Muslims as well, burials are to be performed as soon after death as possible. In North London, though, swift interment cannot happen in the case of a death, R”l, on a Friday night. The coroner’s office will only release the deceased’s remains on Monday morning at the earliest.
Currently, that is. Before Ms. Hassell’s appointment, Jewish and Muslim advocates report, interim coroner Dr. Shirley Radcliffe was entirely accommodating of religious concerns.
Cllr Abdul Hai, Cabinet Member for Customers, Communities & Culture, Camden Council, explained that “[Dr. Radcliffe] understood the religious and cultural needs of families. She was flexible and made herself available out-of-hours when it was required.”
Indeed, most coroners throughout England offer out-of-hours service for free as a matter of course, and make themselves personally and readily available to citizens in need of an expedited burial.
In 2015, in a case brought against Ms. Hassell by five children of an Orthodox Jewish woman, Britain’s High Court has ruled that coroners must send bodies for scans or blood tests rather than carry out invasive autopsies if the deceased’s religion demands the deceased’s remains must stay intact.
Until she lost the High Court landmark ruling Ms. Hassell also opposed non-invasive, or “digital,” post-mortems, in cases where an investigation is required to determine cause of death. Non-invasive “autopsies” use imaging technology like Computerized Tomography (CT) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to develop three-dimensional images for a coroner’s investigation.
Last week, the London-based Jewish Chronicle reported that a Jewish woman made 210 phone calls to the St. Pancras coroner’s office before being told that her father would be buried four days after his death.
The paper cited several other disturbing cases, including Ms. Hassell’s office telling the family of another Jewish man that it would be two weeks before an autopsy could be performed and a funeral held. In that latter case, the newspaper’s contacting Ms. Hassell’s office led the coroner to change her mind and allow the burial within 24 hours.
The senior coroner, a public servant, also made her antipathy toward religious citizens clear in a letter to Jewish community leaders, by asserting that “no death will be prioritized in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family, either by coroner’s officers or coroners.”
Adding fuel to the fire she set, Ms. Hassell added that she would no longer allow Jewish bodies to be held at a local Jewish funeral home to enable shemirah. Previously, other than in murder cases, the coroner had permitted the bodies of Jewish people to be kept at the Carmel burial home in Stamford Hill.
Now, though, Ms. Hassell says, the bodies of Jewish people “will now go to the mortuary as everyone else does while awaiting a decision by the sitting coroner, and will remain in that mortuary after any scan or invasive autopsy, until the coroner makes the decision to release to the family.”
Mr. Asserson, today representing Stamford Hill’s Adath Yisroel Burial Society, said that Ms. Hassell has “shown a total disregard for, or ignorance of, the law in deciding never to give priority to ‘faith deaths.’ Her conduct demonstrates what I consider to be a gross disregard for the religious sensibilities, as well as the legal rights, of the Muslim and Jewish families whose deceased relatives come under her control.”
Rabbi Asher Gratt, a 40-year veteran of Adath Yisroel Burial Society, said that, until Ms. Hassell became the local coroner, the group had no problems with the coroner’s office. But he had “no words to describe the frustration and the pain that I have witnessed in the last five years amongst vulnerable, bereaved families, through this woman. It beggars belief that we should be going through these sorts of issues in a democratic society.”
It does indeed. And Mr. Gove’s two-year-old words about Ms. Hassell echo in the present: Why on earth is she behaving in this way?