Re-use Jewish graves? No way says Ron Hoenig

November 1, 2013 by  
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The NSW State Labor member for Heffron Ron Hoenig MP has spoken out against the State Government’s plans to reuse Jewish grave sites slamming it as “unethical and a betrayal of Jewish religious beliefs.”

The O’Farrell Government has introduced a Bill in Parliament that would enable grave sites to be reused 25 years after a person’s death.

Mr Hoenig told Parliament that a Jewish burial place, like many religions, is sacred and cannot be interfered with.

“There is prohibition under Jewish law, even after thousands of years, against the scared site, a person’s last resting place, being interfered with,” Mr Hoenig said.

The concept of a Jew being removed from his burial site and buried in a “mass grave” is just unacceptable to the Jewish people.

Mr Hoenig said he had consulted with his local Rabbi before speaking in Parliament.

Mr Hoenig, on behalf of all who held the burial of their loved ones sacred, called on the Government to immediately reconsider its proposal.

Hoenig stated the following in the NSW State Parliament this week:

Ron Hoenig

Ron Hoenig

Mr RON HOENIG (Heffron) [9.47 p.m.]: In participating in debate on the Cemeteries and Crematoria Bill 2013, I adopt the remarks of the Opposition Whip and member for Mount Druitt. Earlier as part of his celebration of his election 30 years and one week ago, which was recognised by the parliamentary Labor Party, he gave one of the most impressive and thought-provoking speeches I have heard in the short time I have been a member of this House. One of the things that the Father of the House brings to our attention is institutionalised memory. He brought to the attention of this House attempts by the funeral industry in the late 1980s to sell a bill of goods to the then government of the day, which happened to be a Coalition government. The attempt was rejected. The funeral industry later made the same approach to a Labor Government, which was rejected. The same proposal, albeit slightly modified, has appeared again before a relatively newly elected Coalition Government.

Interestingly enough I inquired of the Opposition Whip whether the same numbers to which the Minister referred in his second reading speech were the numbers used in 1989—that capacity would be reached in 30 or 40 years—and his recollection is that they were. Despite the intervening 24 years, the same figure has been used. I wonder whether the Minister’s second reading speech and the speech prepared for the member for Drummoyne are recycled speeches that had been prepared for previous Labor and conservative governments.

There are myriad cemeteries and crematoria, managed by State agencies, local government, public and religious trusts, community and other organisations—further separated by denominational portions—and I accept that there are areas, in Sydney particularly, where cemetery space is limited. Botany Cemetery, in my electorate, is one. For a number of years the cemetery board has been unsuccessfully endeavouring to expand that land. It has caused a great deal of consternation, particularly to the Greek Orthodox church and community and to the Jewish community. I commend Father Steven Scoutas from St Spyridon’s Greek Orthodox church for his relentless campaign to try to ensure that those in the Greek Orthodox community can be interred in areas reasonably proximate to where their families live. He has been supported in that by the Jewish community.

I made enquiries today of Rabbi Elie Farkas of the Maroubra synagogue as to Jewish burial practices. I also enquired of the Hon. Shaoquett Moselmane in the other place and was told that Muslim concerns are the same as or similar to those of Jews in relation to cemeteries. The Jewish community is concerned about this resurrected policy of renewable interment sites because a Jewish cemetery is a place where members of the Jewish faith are buried in keeping with Jewish traditions. It is known in Hebrew as the House of Eternity. The land of the cemetery is considered holy and a special consecration ceremony takes place on its inauguration. Establishing a cemetery is one of the first priorities for any new Jewish community. It is regarded by the Jewish community as a holy site, in perpetuity.

The burial practices of the Jewish community are so significant to them because Jews have mandated for three and a half thousand years that they will be buried in the same way as their ancestors. The Jews believe it is a Biblical commandment to bury one’s deceased immediately after passing and that it is forbidden to leave the deceased unburied overnight, unless it is for his honour. The Jews believe that one may not put off a burial unnecessarily. The Jewish sages state that the soul is in turmoil until the body is properly buried in the ground. It is also forbidden for Jews to have an open casket, which is considered extremely disrespectful to the deceased. According to Jewish law, a Jew is to be buried as he is born, complete with all his limbs and organs. The human body is considered by Jews as sacred in death as it was in life as it contains a godly soul. The Jew must be buried in a traditional grave in the ground, so that the body may return to the earth. Other burial practices, such as vaults, mausoleums or other alternatives to traditional ground burial, are strictly forbidden according to Jewish law.

The Jews believe fundamentally and have learnt from Kabbalah, that when a proper kosher burial is not administered, the deceased’s soul is stuck in a state of turmoil and cannot find rest until the body’s remains are given a proper Jewish burial and allowed to be absorbed into the earth, even after many years. There is a prohibition, even after thousands of years, against that sacred site being interfered with.

ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr Lee Evans): Order! Members will resume their seats and allow the member for Heffron to continue his speech.

Mr RON HOENIG: An issue of considerable concern to the Jewish community—and I suspect also to the Muslim community—is the proposal to provide for family members to take a cheaper option if, in fact, they are under financial pressure at the time of the passing of a loved one. As the Opposition Whip explained, there are four areas where those organising a funeral service for a loved one will be given an option. If the bill is passed in its present form, the costs factor for a renewable option may well cause those decisions to be made, even with the best of intentions. It would be anathema for the Jewish community to in any way encourage a law of the State that would cause any person or any family member to select a burial option for a loved one that was not permanent. It is a fundamental premise of the Jewish religion that the body of an interred person should not be interfered with. The concept of a Jew being removed from his grave and placed—as the Opposition Whip suggested—in a mass grave or ossuary box, would cause considerable consternation to the Jewish community in this State. That part of the Cemeteries and Crematoria Bill 2013 is opposed by the Opposition, which causes us to oppose the entire bill.

Mr CLAYTON BARR (Cessnock) [9.57 p.m.]: I speak on the Cemeteries and Crematoria Bill 2013. Together with some of my colleagues, I have considerable concerns about this bill, especially the idea that the space in which a person has been buried could be onsold, resold or re-used.

I had the good fortune to spend about seven years of my life working with cancer sufferers and I experienced the deaths of a number of people from that disease. I was exposed to a significant amount of grief and loss counselling during those years. Eminent practitioners of grief and loss counselling say that the importance of having somewhere to go to pay tribute to a deceased person is not reduced by the passing of time. I heard various stories during that time of people who 30, 40, 50 and even 60 years on still felt the need to go to a grave to pay tribute to a person who had died.

I am shocked and surprised that this bill has been brought to the House by a member of The Nationals. Obviously, for the Nationals land is not an issue and I appreciate that the Nationals are living in the country but thinking of the city. I note that the member of The Nationals who is the Minister in charge of the bill has stated that space is an issue. I appreciate the fact that in the matter of cemeteries and crematoria, space is an issue. Australia is an enormous place and we should have plenty of capacity to ensure that people are treated as respectfully in death as they were in life. It is despicable that this bill proposes that gravesites be onsold at some point 25 years after a person’s death. Such a proposal suggests a difference between the rights of the haves and the have-nots; that is, those with wealth can ensure their grave is secured for eternity and those without cannot.

Just two months ago I experienced something special with my wife, whose father died 19 years ago on 30 August. We shed a tear that night. She still visits her father’s grave and continues to experience considerable grief at losing him one day before her twenty-first birthday. I find it offensive that at 25 years after his death, which is only six years away, someone might come to us for more money to preserve his gravesite. Indeed, when my wife’s father was buried she purchased the space next to his because she wanted to be buried beside him. Our grief and sense loss mean that we need a site that has a tombstone, headstone or mark of a person’s existence. We cannot predict what people will want in the future. I have a 5-year-old son, and three daughters aged two, eight and nine. I cannot predict when they might want to visit my gravesite; it may be when they get married, have children or turn 21, 30 or 50. In death I certainly do not want to leave them with an ongoing debt or having to pay more money into a fund to secure my resting place.

Having said all that, unlike some members I do not speak from the religious perspective. My view reflects grief and loss, which we all experience regardless of our religious perspective. It is abhorrent to think that we might onsell, upsell, future sell, or make ongoing payments for the place in which we are laid to rest or leave our families with the ordeal of preserving our place on this earth. I cannot believe the Cemeteries and Crematoria Bill was accepted by the Cabinet and was introduced in this place. I am proud that the Labor Party will oppose this bill, as do I.

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