Every week the English edition of the magazine “Mishpacha” features a true story in the collection of A. M. Amitz. One of these stories which appeared on 10 December 2008 (Issue 237) was entitled “Rest in Peace”.
This story related of a woman who after she became widowed went to live in an “assisted living” home. Daily she would be visited by a member of her family. One day the family received a telephone call from this home telling them that she had died and the home would make all the burial arrangements.
The family naturally went to the levaya and decided that they would all sit shiva together. On the fifth day of the shiva they received a telephone call from their mother asking why no-one had visited her for nearly a week. The members of the family were flabbergasted and some of the family members even fainted on hearing their mother’s voice five days after attending her levaya! How could someone who had died nearly a week earlier telephone them?!!
On enquiry it was found that it was a different woman in the home who had died and the home had made a serious mix up. However, this mix up turned out to be to the good, since the son of the woman who had been buried, had planned, against the wishes of his mother, to cremate her and as a result of this mix up she had a proper Jewish burial.
This story by A. M. Amitz reminded me of an incident which happened in 1968, over forty years ago in London at the levaya of my father’s twin brother, my late uncle. I was in Israel at the time and only heard about it much later. Since I only heard it at least second hand, I cannot vouch for complete accuracy of all the facts but in general this is what happened. However, in contrast to the Amitz story which turned out for the good, had the mistake in the case of my uncle not be spotted in time, it could possibly have resulted in my uncle being cremated instead of having a Jewish burial.
I therefore after reading this story in “Mishpacha” decided to write a letter for publication to this magazine and I sent it to them by e-mail. Here is an expanded version of the letter I sent them:
My uncle who was in his early 60s had developed stomach cancer. I heard that this made it difficult for him to digest food and he thus became thin. He was hospitalized and died in hospital aged 62.
After his death the hospital authorities handed over a body to the Chevra Kadisha who then did a taharah on it and put it in a coffin. However the body the hospital handed over was not my uncle’s body. How this mistake occurred I don’t know for sure, but I heard maybe the regular staff were not in the hospital at that time. It goes without say that the Chevra Kadisha did not notice the mistake.
The levaya started from the area of my parent’s house in Edgware. It then proceeded to the Jewish burial ground in Bushey. In the ohel of the cemetery the various prayers prior to the levayah were then recited.
Whilst the coffin was then being taken to the prepared grave for burial, one of the Chevra Kadisha happened to ask my father what they should do with my uncle’s clothes. My father replied “but he was wearing pajamas”. “No” they replied, “he was fully clothed”. My father immediately realised that something was wrong and demanded that they open the coffin. They did this and discovered that they had the wrong body, almost certainly that of a non-Jew.
The Minister who was conducting the burial service had been a Synagogue Minister for over thirty years and had said he had never known of such a case like this, (or possibly he said he had known only one case like before). Maybe there had been cases, but they went undetected and the wrong bodies lie to this very day in the graves!
Immediately, together with my father, the Chevra Kadisha drove back at top speed to the hospital with the body of this stranger, identified the body of my uncle, performed a taharah on it in the presence of my father, who insisted on being present this time to make sure there were no further mistakes. They then returned to the cemetery and my uncle was then given a proper Jewish burial.
The car journey from my parents’ house to the cemetery is about 15 minutes duration and therefore the family should have returned home after about an hour. However, because of what had occurred it took much much longer. My mother, who had not gone to the cemetery, related that in the house they were getting worried that the family had not yet returned from the cemetery. (This was well before the days of mobile phones.)
In conclusion, one shudders to think what would have happened had the member of the Chevra Kadisha not made this chance remark to my father, or had the stranger been wearing pajamas; it was surely Siyata Dishmaya and not just “chance”. This non-Jew would have had a Jewish burial and in its place my uncle might have been buried in a churchyard cemetery, or even worse, been cremated.
After I had sent a shortened version of the above account to “Mishpacha”, they replied to me “Who knows? Maybe the stranger who received the taharah was really Jewish?” To that one can answer that in view of the fact that the percentage of the population of London who are Jewish is very small, it is statistically unlikely that it was in fact the body of another Jew.
A similar case of the wrong body being buried occurred in Jerusalem in February 2011. However in this case, the error was only discovered after the actual burial had taken place.