UK amends emergency coronavirus bill to safeguard religious burial practices for Jews and Muslims

25 Mar 2020

The British government has agreed to a provision to its emergency coronavirus bill which would have allowed for the forced cremation of bodies, a practice that is forbidden by both the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The provision, which follows protests from representatives of each community, calls for authorities to “have regard” for the disposal of bodies “in accordance with the person’s wishes, if known, or otherwise in a way that appears consistent with the person’s religion or beliefs,”  in legislation that tackles the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus outbreak. 

The legislation, which originally stated that “personal choice for body disposal will be respected as far as possible,” received pushback from several Jewish and Muslim groups, including the WJC- affiliated Board of Deputies of British Jews, which expressed concern that the legislation could violate an individual’s deeply held religious beliefs against cremation. 

The provision was welcomed by Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, who said that the BoD "would like to extend our deep and sincere thanks to the Government for working with us to amend this legislation, to protect the final wishes and religious freedoms of the deceased. There could be few things more sacred.”

“It shows, even in these difficult times for our nation, why we have so much reason to be proud of this wonderful country.”

BoD President van der Zyl specifically thanked Labor MP Naz Shah, who advanced an amendment giving a religious exception to individual’s with religious beliefs against cremation, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick for their hard work ensuring that the legislation would be altered. Following news that the legislation would be amended, Shaz posted on twitter that she was “so relieved that the Government have listened to what we've said about religious burials for Muslim and Jewish people and have brought forward an amendment to address our concerns. I don't need to push my amendment to a vote. Thank you so much to everyone for your support!”

On Monday, WJC President Ronald S. Lauder issued a video message to the 100 WJC-affiliated Jewish communities around the world reacting to the coronavirus outbreak. In his remarks, Lauder promised that “the World Jewish Congress stands ready to aid every Jewish community around the world. If you need help, if there is something we can do, contact us immediately.”