A Macabre New Industry Takes Root As Covid-19 Deaths Surge

Bringing Jewish victims for burial in Israel is proving to be a windfall for some

Amir Kurtz 08:5425.04.20
“I apologize for the late hour, but we just released 16 more bodies that arrived on an El Al cargo flight from France. They are all marked as coronavirus patients. Stay safe.” This Whatsapp message was sent by a customs agent last week. The agent went on to say that Israeli customs officials have been handling an unprecedented number of human bodies in recent weeks. “These days we are mostly processing medical supplies and bodies, lots of bodies. Under normal circumstances, we receive a body every two or three nights, nowaday we get dozens of bodies a day, mostly from New York, Paris, and London. It has become a booming industry.”


“There is a new industry developing here of shipping bodies, most of them belonging to coronavirus victims, for burial in Israel,” one person who works at Ben Gurion International Airport told Calcalist under condition of anonymity. “The health ministry’s regulations are very clear regarding the process such bodies must go through, in a casket with official consular approval. But some of the bodies are arriving on extremely expensive private flights that involve mostly foreign companies that own private jets, shipping companies, and all kinds of go-betweens from the ultra-orthodox communities in the U.S. and France—mostly places with affluent Jewish communities that were hard hit by Covid-19.”


Avraham Manela, the chairman of the Hevra Kadisha burial society forum. Photo: PR, Medasia Medical Flight Avraham Manela, the chairman of the Hevra Kadisha burial society forum. Photo: PR, Medasia Medical Flight
Official figures provided to Calcalist by Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry show that between the middle of March and the middle of April, 151 bodies of Jews who passed away outside the country were shipped for burial in Israel, 89 of them in the first two weeks of April. According to health ministry’s regulations, all bodies are to be treated as if they were infected with coronavirus, even if that wasn’t the official cause of death. The expectation is that after the Passover holiday, the number of bodies flown in for burial in Israel will continue to rise.


Most of the deceased are people who purchased a burial plot before their passing, most commonly in Jerusalem— a city that is known for its shortage of plots— and at a “special” rate for residents of foreign countries that can reach tens of thousands of dollars. There have also been other cases of families that rush to secure a plot in Israel after their loved ones die.


The religious affairs ministry explains that the arrangement works like any other contract, between the deceased and the burial agency, and that it should be treated as such. One person who works at the ministry said that in some cases the bodies, some of which were slated for cremation or to be buried in mass graves, needed to be “saved from that fate and brought to Israel.”


“There is a huge demand to be buried in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting rise in deaths in Jewish centers, particularly in New York,” an official at the Israeli consulate in New York told Calcalist. The consulate’s involvement is limited to charging the $14 fee for processing the required documents to fly the bodies over.


Sources in the aviation and burial sectors in Israel describe a “black market” of sorts developing, with tens and at times hundreds of thousands of dollars changing hands per body, as the death toll from Covid-19 mounts and the number of commercial flights to Israel decreases. The shortage of standard solutions, those people said, has seen the entrance of private companies and assorted go-betweens into the process.


Most of the bodies arrive on El Al cargo flights and occasionally on IsraAir flights via cargo handling company Flying Cargo. Coffins are loaded on to the planes according to constantly updating health ministry regulations that determine that bodies must be identified, wrapped in two polyethylene bags, and closed in a “sealed casket made of metal or two layers of wood,” and arrive with official documents noting the cause of death and consular approval.


One person working at El Al said to Calcalist on condition of anonymity that the company collects dozens of bodies four times a week from an airport in the Belgian city of Liège. “Ambulances transport the bodies of the deceased, mostly from Paris. There are flights with as many as 20 bodies on board,” he said. An aviation industry source said El Al has maintained its shipping prices, $1,000-3,000, depending on the destination and weight of the casket and has only added a $200 surcharge for extra coronavirus-related expenses.


Some wealthy Jews, particularly from France, hire private jets to ship the bodies, at an estimated cost of $30,000-40,000.


Meanwhile, in the U.S., WWS, the local shipping company that El Al works with, refuses to handle the bodies so as not to put its workers at risk. “They are afraid of employee lawsuits,” said an Israeli person who spoke to Calcalist with knowledge of the operations. For that reason, El Al can’t transport bodies from North America and the families turn to the private jet operators. Due to the high demand, prices have skyrocketed in recent weeks, reaching $150,000-200,000 per flight. According to Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the founder and chairman of ZAKA Search and Rescue. “Last week there was an instance that a family paid $270,000 for a private flight. Companies are taking advantage of the situation and are going wild.”


Yossi Landau the owner of B.S.D. Forwarding & Logistics, who volunteers for ZAKA, is aiding in the effort to bring bodies to burial in Israel by functioning as a liaison between families and transport and burial companies.


“Private flights are in high demand all over the world,” he told Calcalist. “Hevra Kadisha (the Jewish burial society) in the U.S. and the health ministry referred families to me to try and help them. In the beginning, we operated according to the health ministry’s shipping guidelines, that demand bodies be shipped in a casket, but small private jets only have room for one casket and the first flight we sent out cost $140,000. It was very expensive. The bodies kept on coming, so they decided to transport them only in body bags and we were able to fit four bodies onto the plane. By then the American jet company had raised the price to $180,000, but at least the cost was split between four families,” Landau said.


Landau warns that even at those inflated prices, there are people who take advantage of the situation. “There was this American Jewish Macher (Yiddish for fixer) who deals with medical flights who took a family in need from New York for a ride. He charged them $225,000 to arrange the flight and transfer and took a $45,000 cut for himself, even though he told them he only made $5,000 on the deal. We will make sure that this con man gets what he deserves in the U.S. press,” he said.


Landau says he hasn’t made a cent from all his work. “I have a relative in the U.S. who is also a volunteer for ZAKA and we’re doing it all as a mitzvah— Hebrew for religious obligation. I wish we could load bodies onto El Al cargo flights, That way we could ship 10 bodies at a time. Together with Meshi Zahav, we are trying to see if we can arrange things with WWS so that ZAKA volunteers handle the bodies instead of their employees, but right now things seem stuck,” Landau said.


As Landau describes it, the “shared flights” on private jets can only take place if the bodies are not placed in caskets, but that violates the health ministry regulations. In spite of that, several such shared flights did make it into Israel. A Calcalist investigation revealed that in early April, several private jets belonging to a Delaware-based company landed in Israel. A video obtained by Calcalist shows several body bags descending from a private jet and being transferred to awaiting ZAKA and Hevra Kadisha ambulances by workers wearing gloves and protective gear.


After the details were made public, the health ministry apparently decided to ring the alarm bells and prohibit the shipment of bodies in bags. “This week, I shipped an empty casket from Israel to Cyprus, at the expense of $12,000, just so it could meet another flight carrying a body in a bag,” said Landau. “We did all of that because we didn’t receive permission from the health ministry and so that the body needed to be transferred to the casket ahead of its arrival to Israel. There are other families in America that I’m in contact with who can’t afford to pay for the private flight. It is a real problem.”


Meshi Zahav noted another problem, that the doors to private jets are too narrow to accommodate caskets. “A plane that departed for the U.S. this week to onboard bodies wasn’t granted permission to land in Israel because the bodies were in bags,” he said.


Both men told Calcalist that they are in negotiations with the health ministry to ease the restrictions and allow transferring bodies in sealed bags instead of caskets. They say Dr. Chen Kugel, who heads the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine, was recruited to write an assessment supporting their request. “He says there is no problem with it,” said Meshi Zahav. “It may not look great having bodies wrapped in sealed nylon bags descend from a plane, but they are airtight and safe. There is no danger of infection,” he said.


“I’ve held talks with officials in the health ministry and it is mostly because of bureaucratic issues,” said Landau. He said he also spoke to aids of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman but they told him they couldn’t help because Litzman was already under fire by the public. Litzman, a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, is recovering from coronavirus himself and was the subject of heated criticism for violating social distancing regulations by taking part in joint prayer sessions counter to his own ministry’s guidelines. “So things are stuck right now and only those who can afford the high cost of hiring a private jet can send bodies for burial,” Landau added.


One person who says he can offer a solution of sorts is Moshe Grosberger, the CEO of medical shipping company Medassis, which he claims controls 70% of the Israeli market and can fly two caskets while meeting health ministry regulations.


“We are the only company that has a plane that can contain two caskets,” he said. “Private jets are meant for passengers. Bodies are stored by pushing the seats back and tethering the body or the casket to the seat. This shipping method is catastrophic and violates health ministry regulations. They are luxury aircraft that have a galley opposite the entrance and that is why they can’t fit caskets. Our planes have a wide doorway on the side of the plane so caskets can be loaded easily,” said Grosberger.


“Our two-body capacity can save expenses for families who can share the cost. In the last few days, we have flown in caskets from Europe and ensured all the paperwork was done ahead of time so that within minutes of landing, the bodies were already loaded on to ambulances and sent for burial quickly. Flights from the U.S. are trickier because they are longer and require a stop for refueling, but they are still possible,” Grosberger said.


According to a health ministry official, all the private flights carrying bodies that arrived in Israel were conducted according to the health requirements. He said that in several instances, the family members accompanied the bodies on the plane and in those cases, the living family members were tested for coronavirus and a health ministry official instructed them on their quarantine requirements. In another instance, a baby’s body was shipped by private jet while their parents arrived on a commercial flight. “At the end of the day, we’re talking about a few individual cases that the ministry manages,” the official said, noting that he was not familiar with the case of the bodies arriving in bags.


Under normal circumstances, a body that arrives on a commercial flight is transferred to one of two cargo depots at Ben Gurion International Airport. Both the one operated by Maman and that of Swissport have special facilities to handle human remains, with cooling units and dedicated teams that are in charge of the bureaucratic procedures opposite the customs and other authorities. “Since the coronavirus outbreak, the bodies are offloaded from the plane directly by Hevra Kadisha and Maman only handles the registration and release process,” Maman chairman Nehama Ronen told Calcalist.


A customs official said the process is fast because the bodies are “high priority handoffs.”


After the paperwork is complete, the bodies are moved into Hevra Kadisha ambulances and transferred to one of four health ministry approved purification centers


Hevra Kadisha personnel who spoke to Calcalist said that the final stage is the only one they are involved in, and that any price gouging that’s done for other parts of the delivery are not their responsibility. According to managers of the burial society, they haven’t raised the price of the transfer from the airport due to the pandemic, but Landau said he saw cases where part of the Hevra Kadisha operators (there are hundreds across the country) did in fact raise their rates for no apparent reason from NIS 2,500 to NIS 4,500-5,000 (approximately $1,300-1,400).


Yitzhak Glubstein, the head of the primary Hevra Kadisha in Jerusalem, and the official in charge of the purification center in the city, was adamant that prices for body delivery and for burial plots had not changed. The only difference, he said, is the extra payment for purification whose price was set by the ministries of health and religious affairs: NIS 2,300 ($650) during normal work hours and NIS 3,000 (approximately $850) for evenings and weekends.


Several Hevra Kadisha managers who spoke to Calcalist said that the cost of burial plots for foreign residents had not risen as a result of the virus, but conceded that they were high in any case.


“The price of a plot for a foreign resident can range from $10,000 to $30,000 depending on the location. The vast majority of deceased who come to be buried in Israel are people who purchased their plot, mostly in Jerusalem, when they were alive,” said Manela. “In any case, the money goes to a development fund that is used for cemetery maintenance for the public good.”


Tzuriel Krispel, who heads Jerusalem’s cemetery council, said that regardless of the pandemic, the price of plots for foreign residents is determined by geography, ranging from NIS 60,000 to NIS120,000 (approximately $34,000) for the most lucrative spots.


“The regulated Hevra Kadisha didn’t raise prices for plots,” Avraham Manela, the chairman of the Hevra Kadisha burial society forum, said. “We wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of people’s hardships. If there are machers, or illegal burial societies who call themselves Hevra Kadish but operate without a license, it’s on the fringes and the authorities need to deal with them. Periods of disaster or high stress are times when con artists and scoundrels flourish. There have been incidents before of people taking over whole sections and selling plots at exorbitant prices.”