When my very elderly father died in his own bed in Hove late on a Thursday evening two years ago, the first port of call was to Martin Gross the Jewish undertaker. He’s served the two main orthodox communities of Brighton and Hove for more than a quarter of a century.
Gross swung into action. His goal was to make sure everything was in place for my father Michael, the community’s most senior minyan man, to be buried before Shabbat. On the secular front his instructions to me were concise. Call the doctor to obtain a death certificate. He would be in touch with the Registrar of Birth, Deaths and Marriages at Brighton Town Hall to make sure that when I arrived with the appropriate document the required green form would be forthcoming.
He also, with local rabbis, co-ordinated the religious arrangements. As a former warden and life vice-president of Hove Hebrew Community it was deemed appropriate that on his way to internment my father’s cortege would stop outside the shul, the doors opened and tehillim (psalms) recited. The tahara team was assembled to prepare the body, his kittel, tallit and much-used daily prayer book collected. At Meadowview cemetery, high up on Brighton’s Race Hill with views over the South Downs and sea, work began on preparing the grave site next to my mother, Hilda, and my late elder brother Martin.
The process was conducted with consummate efficiency, kindness and attentiveness to detail with the help and great understanding of local rabbis from the Hove Hebrew Congregation, Chabad and the Brighton & Hove community. Down the decades I have come to know Meadowview – the renamed Bear Road cemetery – only too well. My maternal grandparents are buried there, countless aunts and uncles cousins and friends.
The Jewish undertakers have served the community loyally and well. Bernie Goldberg, who after his retirement passed the role onto Martin, have been professionals of the first order. Both were steeped in the history of the Brighton community, the families and their generations and were walking encyclopaedia of the geography of the burial site.
Martin was more than familiar with the complex Halacha of burial and considered knowledgeable enough to work with a section of the Stamford Hill Charedi community.
Unfortunately, as the result of a contract dispute Martin has been sidelined from his role. All the indications and surveys of community opinion favour his redeployment. Members of the local Orthodox communities favour a Jewish undertaker who is confident in matters of burial Halacha.
Instead, a non-Jewish firm of undertakers, Bungards, is being temporarily used. As kind and helpful as Bungards may be, experience in the non-Jewish world has not in any way prepared them for Jewish ritual or speed. At the end of August the non-Jewish undertakers proposed leaving a lavoyah until after the bank holiday weekend much to the dismay of the family. It took enormous energy by officials of Hove Hebrew Congregation to reverse the postponement and deal sensitively with distraught family members.
There had been hope by Sussex community leaders that the Chief Rabbi’s Office and/or the London Beth Din, the authorities which provide guidance to the communities, would intervene to see if the tradition of a Jewish undertaker for the area could be preserved.
As is fitting they have listened carefully to requests for assistance but so far have not been fully engaged. It may well be that the burial complications around Covid-19 in London and the unfortunate number of community bereavements mean that the authorities have more than enough on their hands.
But for all of us with a longstanding connection to the Brighton and Hove communities the stalemate is distressing. By all accounts Martin is ready to serve the community again as he always has. All it needs is for those with an understanding of the sensitivities of issue, to prevail.