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A Met Mitzvah story

Chabad Islington was honoured last week to be able to provide a special mitzvah following the death of a man in his late eighties who lived alone in Highbury. The man, who we will call David (not his real name), was born in Cape Town, South Afirca, but had lived in the UK for many years. He had relatives in the United States but had no known family in the UK.  

David died at the Whittington Hospital last month following a period of illness. On his death his body had become a met mitzvah, (which may sound strange 'a dead mitzvah', but actually means) to care compassionately for the remains of the dead, in particular to bury an 'abandoned' body for which there is no one else to care. It is considered by many to be the foremost mitzvah, over which no other mitzvah takes precedence.

Chabad learnt of David’s situation in January, having received an email from San Diego from a relative who said his great-uncle was living alone in a council flat and was coming to the end of his life. David had not been in touch with a rabbi or a synagogue in years and was intending for his body to be cremated, the caller said. 

Rabbi Mendy got in touch immediately with David and the two men chatted. David mentioned that he had written a will but had not yet had it witnessed by signatories. The rabbi organised for a community member who is a solicitor to help with this and, when he mentioned to David that Jewish tradition was for burial rather than cremation – “Hitler burned Jews, we don’t,” as he put it –David opted for burial, saying: “What is important is that you, as a rabbi, take care of my funeral.” In a codicil to his will, David added that he wished to be buried.  

Three weeks ago, David became gravely ill. Rabbi Mendy visited him at the Whittington and recalled that David was struggling to speak. Two days later, sadly, he died.

Two more big hurdles needed to be overcome, however, before burial could take place: proving David’s Jewish identity and gaining access to his will, which was in his flat. The documents showing David’s status were in South Africa and would take months to obtain from goverment bodies, and the researchers at the Bet Din in South Africa were unable to find any documentation either. However, Chabad managed to work with David’s great-nephew in San Diego and use testimony rather than documentary evidence of status, as well as obtain a death certificate for David, which enabled it to proceed with organising the burial. 

The day of burial finally dawned, and Rabbi Mendy travelled with the body to Rainham Jewish Cemetery in Essex. One final twist to the story remained: gathering a minyan (ten Jewish men) for the funeral. Rabbi Mendy had asked for people to help with this but when it came to it there were only nine men at the graveside. They looked around for help and it arrived: a mourner who had been visiting a grave offered to come over and make up the minyan. And that is when the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. This tenth man, hearing about the circumstances of David’s death, volunteered the information he was able to help to pay for gravestones for people who die in impoverished circumstances and who would not otherwise be able to afford one.  

After months of planning, and a very busy couple weeks leading to David’s funeral, not only had he been given a fitting burial, but plans were in place for his headstone. Thank you to everyone in the community who helped to complete this 'Met Mitzvah'.

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