Bereavement is always difficult whatever the circumstances.
In the past month, our family has suffered two losses: my mother-in-law, Jacqueline Magrill, in Cardiff and my father, Michael Brummer, in Brighton.
Jewish death requires a smooth interface with the civilian authorities because of the requirement to bury as soon as practical. Generally, the system works well, although events in north London, where coroner Mary Hassell declined to prioritise Jewish (and Muslim) burials gave much cause for pause.
Fortunately, because of advanced age and regular doctor visits there was no need to involve coroners. Indeed, my experience with the registrar of deaths in Brighton, and my wife’s in Cardiff, was exemplary.
On the morning after my father’s death, I emailed the registrar’s office to say that in keeping with Jewish tradition we would need the ‘green’ document, which allows a burial to proceed that day, and asked if special arrangements could be made.
When I arrived at Brighton Town Hall, I was ushered into the registrar’s waiting room. Within moments, the registrar emerged, shook my hand, offered condolences, and invited me to compete the documentation. She asked pertinent questions about my father’s life and showed great interest in the family’s local history.
The whole process was completed within 20 minutes and the Jewish undertaker was able to proceed and arrange a 5pm burial on erev Shabbat. It is, rabbis told me, a special blessing to be buried before Shabbat.
Although the dates and circumstances were different, my wife Tricia also had a good experience when collecting the death certificates and green documents from the registrar in Cardiff.
Jewish populations may be dwindling in the provinces, but the degree of sympathy, care and understanding was exceptional. The contrast with north London, where the High Court had to be involved, could not be greater.
In the case of my father’s death, I have been overwhelmed by the care and attention of all the rabbis across the community. Brighton Rabbi Pesach Efune of Lubavitch Chabad spent several hours sitting with me and my brother talking through his life as we watched the body.
During the days of shiva, rabbis from across the community, including Rabbi Samuel de Beck Spitzer of Hove, Rabbi Herschel Rader and Rabbi Zalman Lewis were extremely supportive in particular, making sure the morning minyan remained intact. Richmond Rabbi Meir Shindler journeyed from London to lead the memorial prayers. The care and loving attention and the remembrances and words of all these leaders was inspiring. The same can be said of the rabbis at Western Marble Arch Lionel Rosenfeld and Sam Taylor, who welcomed a non-member.
Tricia and I have been swamped by letters of condolence, many with wonderful anecdotes that can be treasured. In the Daily Mail’s office, where beards are not favoured, there has been much interest in the Jewish way of mourning and great tributes to both our parents. At times, our home has resembled a florist shops as non-Jewish colleagues have shown their sympathy.
Recently, some British Jews have felt that the UK is no longer the tolerant place it has been. Of course, there is anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and elsewhere, which must be deplored. And there will always be the coroner, animal rights activists and opponents of circumcision who seek to undermine Jewish practice. But when push comes to shove, the decency and fairness of ordinary British people shines through.