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Religious Leaders Avert Death Certificate Delays

Bowing to pressure from Jewish and Muslim leaders who warned that funerals could be delayed, state lawmakers have tentatively agreed to reject proposed budget cuts that would have drastically reduced funding for medical examiners across New York.

Both faiths require speedy burials — within a day of death, if not sooner. New York City’s medical examiner, Charles Hirsch, had recently warned the city council that Governor David Paterson’s proposed budget would eliminate 27% of his funding, forcing him to lay off half his staff and to shut down all the offices in the outer boroughs. This would lead to significantly longer wait times for death certificates. Medical examiners across the state would have faced similar budget problems.

But opposition from religious groups persuaded lawmakers to look elsewhere for the cuts needed to bridge a state budget deficit that’s $16 billion and growing.

The governor didn’t fully understand the implications of the medical examiner’s funding, which was classified as “nonessential” spending in the budget, said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

“Once the governor’s office, the speaker of the assembly and the senate majority leader learned of this, they were all immediately receptive,” Pollock said. Joined by other religious organizations, Jewish and Muslim leaders presented a united front in explaining to lawmakers the reasons the cuts would be harmful, Pollock said.

About half of all deaths require the medical examiner to issue a death certificate before burial can occur, according to Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, director of the largest Jewish burial society in the country, the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens. Usually, doctors sign death certificates, but the medical examiner is obligated to investigate in certain circumstances, such as when people die from suicide, accident or crime, or when people in apparent good health die suddenly.

Zohn praised Hirsch for working closely with Jewish and Muslim groups to expedite death certificates. “They know how important it is to us,” Zohn said.

New York is one of a few cities where medical examiners respond to deaths 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Before Hirsch took over the office, funeral directors and families often waited up to 15 hours just to get a response from the medical examiner’s office after a death was reported, said James Donofrio, owner of the Al-Jennah Islamic Burial in Brooklyn. He said the cuts would have been “disastrous.”

Medical examiner’s offices around the country have been faced with financial pressures as state and local governments scramble to cut costs. In Phoenix, the Maricopa County Supervisors recently cut $32.6 million from the county budget, which they acknowledged will cause delays in responding to crime scenes and natural deaths. Utah’s chief medical examiner is warning that state cutbacks may lengthen response times for already overloaded pathologists. And last year, Chicago’s Cook County Medical Examiner staved off a 10% budget cut after an outcry from Jewish, Muslim and political leaders.

Timely burial is one of the 613 commandments contained in the Torah, Zohn said: “It goes back to the very origins of our faith.”

Zohn wrote to New York lawmakers, urging them to avoid cuts to medical examiners’ offices. “Cutting staff will inevitably impact very seriously on the Jewish community in an area of the greatest importance from a religious and a quality-of-life perspective,” he wrote.

Observant Jews believe that the soul lingers near the body after death and that it cannot progress to the afterlife until the body is buried. Also, speedy funerals help the living move on, he said.

“The process of grieving doesn’t begin until after the burial; that’s when we start to sit shiva,” Zohn explained. “So it’s really necessary to do that immediately.”

It’s not only Orthodox Jews who would be affected by reduced service from medical examiners; funeral directors say that even when a deceased person didn’t practice religion during his life, surviving family members usually want to follow tradition when it comes to the funeral — and that means a speedy burial.

“I think everyone is concerned,” said Steve Kleinberg, owner of the Brooklyn-based Eternal Light Funeral Directors of New York, a funeral home that serves many non-Orthodox Jews. “People don’t care to know about budget problems when it’s their loved one they need to bury.”

Contact Rebecca Dube at [email protected].

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