New procedure allows parents to bury stillborn babies
According to series of regulations drafted by Health, Justice and Religious Services ministries, parents of stillborn babies or fetuses that died towards end of pregnancy will now be permitted to participate in funeral or receive information about grave's location.
So far, stillborns in Israel have been buried in mass graves and parents have not been allowed to participate in the burial or receive information about the grave's location.
According to Jewish Law, there is no need to mourn a baby who passed away on the first month of its life, due to the fact that in ancient times a very high percentage of births ended with the death of the fetus, and sometimes the mother as well.
Therefore, according to the Halacha, a baby who dies on the first month of his life is defined as "stillborn," and there is no need to give him his own grave or to say the Kaddish prayer to lift the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to the next.
The same rule applies to a natural or initiated miscarriage, and so far dead fetuses and stillborns have been buried together in a mass grave.
This situation has infuriated many parents, who have sought the help of Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber, founder of the ITIM association which helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel.
"About 20 people have come to us in the past two years after facing problems when trying to implement their basic right to attend their child's funeral," Rabbi Ferber says. "In one case I even went to the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva myself, took the body in my private care and delivered it to the Yemini Chevra Kadisha in Jerusalem, which was the only one that agreed that the parents would participate in the funeral."
Rabbi Ferber says he has made it clear to the Health Ministry repeatedly that the Halacha does not forbid parents to attend the funeral or know where their fetus was buried, and that it's only a custom originating in an ancient reality which has changed substantially in the past 50 years, as stillbirth rates have dropped significantly.
'Dead fetus' or 'young baby'
Following ongoing, consistent pressure applied by the association and parents who have threatened to take legal measures, the Health and Justice ministries appointed a joint committee with representatives of the Ministry for Religious Services.
The committee discussed the way fetuses and stillborns would be buried and also came up with a procedure for the burial of body parts amputated during surgery.
The Health Ministry recently sent a memo with the new procedures to Israel's hospitals. According to the memo, a fetus up to the age of 12 weeks will be buried in a mass grave in an unmarked plot, and the parents will not be present during the burial.
A fetus up to the age of 20 weeks and weighting up to 500 grams will be buried in a marked plot. The parents will not be present during the burial, but will be able to visit it later if they wish to.
The committee also set two new definitions: A "dead fetus" is a fetus that died after 20 weeks of pregnancy and weighing over 500 grams, while a "young baby" is an infant that died from the moment of birth up to the first 30 days of its life.
In these cases, the committee rules, "the parents are entitled to choose whether they wish to participate in farewell procedure at the hospital or in the funeral and burial. If the parents are unqualified, a different relative must be approached.
The committee further ruled that the Chevra Kadisha organization, which sees to it that the bodies of Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition, must allow the parents to be present at the funeral and mark the burial plot.
The committee added that families requesting a civil burial ceremony would be permitted to hold one.
'It's the parents right to know'
"I would like to thank the health and justice ministers, as well as the religious services minister and his deputy, for setting the new procedure with the help of the information we provided the committee with," said Rabbi Ferber.
"We will continue to ensure that these procedures are implemented, in a bid to give parents the maximum support and choice."
As for claims that not every family which has experienced a stillbirth is fit to attend the funeral, Rabbi Ferber said: "I'm not saying that I know what's good for them, but I do know that the parent knows best. That's the reason why, in my opinion and in the opinion of the ITIM association, parents have the right to participate in the funeral, or at least to know where their fetus has been buried."