The Progressive Jewish Community of East Anglia was formed in late 1989 and the steering committee (prior to the first elections for a Council) held its first meeting in January 1990. One of the many items discussed was a burial scheme.
The larger, mainly London synagogues do have comprehensive burial schemes. Membership subscriptions for these synagogues contain a component which buys burial rights. On the death of a member, the burial scheme pays for the funeral, the undertakers, the rabbi and the plot of land for the grave, but not the headstone. For someone who is not a member of the scheme, the costs might be £7,000-£10,000 (my guess). In order for the burial scheme to pay out such an amount, it has to collect quite large amounts in subscriptions. Subscriptions to London synagogues can be £700-£1000 a year.
The PJCEA steering committee did consider implementing such a scheme, but rapidly came to the conclusion that, in the circumstances, this could not be achieved. Our membership was relatively small and many members had difficulty affording the annual subscription even without a component for burial. This meant that PJC income was limited and therefore the opportunity to build up a burial fund was also limited. Thoughts went along the lines of: if 30 members were able to pay a burial component of £100 a year each, the fund would increase by £3000 a year. However, suppose one family of four people died in a car accident in the PJC’s first year and funeral costs and plots came to £12,000, this would bankrupt the PJC. There was also the unpleasant thought of first class and second class members – those who could afford to be in the scheme and those who could not.
In the end it was decided that the PJC ‘scheme’ would be to pay the rabbi’s fees and travelling expenses for those who had been a Full member for at least two years AND for the PJC burial group to provide advice, assistance and support in general and with the formalities in particular. Advice was available on one method to cover the costs of the funeral and grave plot and that involved whole of life insurance. Members could take out insurance policies with premiums payable for life and the sum assured being paid on the death of the member.
Unfortunately our first death occurred very early in the PJC’s history when the formalities had not yet been researched. I learned very quickly and was aided superbly by representatives of the Norwich Hebrew Congregation. Cooperation with NHC concerning death and burial has been very close.
I realised that I was not going to be available every hour of every day and that someone else in our rapidly organised Burial Group might soon have to deal with another death. A few weeks later I was out of the country when our next death occurred. I had made extensive notes on what to do in the event of a death and John Munden coped extremely well and said that he found the notes very useful.
The next development was the creation of a Funeral Preference form. Our members have a spectrum of beliefs and observance. The Funeral Preference form allows members to express their preferences concerning such things as where they are buried, whether or not they would like ritual washing, which rabbi they would like to officiate, etc. The completed forms are given to the Burial Group coordinator who will make a copy for each member of the Burial Group. The copies are placed in sealed envelopes and kept by the Burial Group members who agree not to open an envelope unless called upon to act.
The Jewish cemetery in Bowthorpe Road, Norwich is part of the Norwich City Council municipal cemetery. The land is owned by the City Council. Plots can only be purchased at time of death.
The cemetery is under the administrative control of Norwich Hebrew Congregation. NHC will accept for burial anyone who is halachically Jewish by Orthodox Jewish principles and also anyone who is Jewish by Liberal Judaism’s principles including Liberal converts. They are also prepared to accept someone who is almost at the end of undergoing Liberal conversion, but has not yet been before the Liberal Rabbinic board. NHC does have a small, separate section for the burial of ashes following cremation. There is a local firm of undertakers familiar with Jewish tradition including the provision of plain coffins.
A very small Jewish section exists in the municipal cemetery in Caister, just north of Great Yarmouth. This is under the administrative control of the local Superintendent of Cemeteries. Burials here may take place following a request either by NHC or NLJC. Many years ago I discussed with Rabbi David Goldberg who would be acceptable to him for burial in this section. He felt that, in general, it would be unkind to separate in death those who had spent a lifetime together. However, there were conditions. The non-Jewish spouse should have lead what might be referred to as a Jewish life, i.e. have supported their Jewish spouse in Jewish matters, perhaps accompanied them to shul on occasions and participated in shul activities; any children should have been brought up Jewish. There must be no non-Jewish symbols at the funeral and on the gravestone of the non-Jewish spouse.
On several occasions members of an LJ synagogue in London have moved to East Anglia and joined the NLJC. They have built up burial rights at their London synagogue and do not want to lose them. Initially the only way to retain those rights was to continue their full membership subscription to a synagogue they would not be attending again. With a significant amount of money being sent to London, some had difficulty affording the NLJC subscription. Eventually LJ HQ decided to instruct the London synagogues to create a system in which members going to LJ synagogues elsewhere in the UK could pay their London synagogue just the burial scheme component of their subscription. In this way members could maintain their burial rights and also have money available to join NLJC.
Philip Lawrence 3rd April 2016
(Revised Feb 2017)