Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Chevra Kadisha workers wearing protective gear carry the body of a coronavirus patient at the Shamgar Funeral Home in Jerusalem, March 29, 2020.

The bodies of 18 Jews who died abroad after falling victim to the coronavirus were brought before Shabbat to Israel last week, for burial in the Holy Land, according to reporter Itay Blumental. The bodies were flown from Liege, Belgium, on an Atlas Air 747 Boeing leased by El Al. Blumental says that over the past two weeks, more than 200 coronavirus patients, packed in compliance with a special health ministry protocol, have arrived from the diaspora.

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A source at Ben Gurion International told Calcalist: “A new industry is developing here for body-shipping and burials in Israel, most of which are coronavirus victims.”

“The Health Ministry’s guidelines are very clear on how a body must be shipped: in a casket and with consular clearance. But some of these bodies come on private jets at crazy prices, which involves executive jet companies, mainly from abroad, as well as shipping companies and all kinds of Haredi machers in the US and France – especially in places where there are financially strong Jewish communities that have been affected by the coronavirus,” the source said.

The Health Ministry’s protocol is more demanding than the description above: the body must first pass identification, be wrapped in two polyethylene bags and be enclosed in “a sealed container with metallic walls or two wooden caskets, one inside the other.”

An airport customs employee told Calcalist: “If in routine times we would release one body every two to three nights, suddenly, dozens of bodies arrive from abroad in one day, mostly from New York, Paris, London. It’s really become a crazy industry.”

Many of the deceased purchased their plots while they were still alive, at a “special” price for overseas residents, which could come to tens of thousands of dollars, especially in Jerusalem, where there’s a severe shortage of new burial plots. But in some cases the families of the deceased purchase the plot after the passing of their loved one, which is expected to bring in astronomical prices.

An El Al official told Calcalist the company collects dozens of bodies from the Liège, Belgium airport four times a week. “Ambulances bring the coronavirus dead there, almost all of them from Paris. Some flights bring as many as 20 bodies in one flight.”

El Al has left its fares unchanged, between $1,000 and $3,000, depending on the destination and weight of the casket, with an additional $200 to $300 charge for pandemic-related expenses. But some wealthy French Jews shun those cargo flights and rent a private jet to fly their loved one’s body to Israel, at an estimated $30,000 to $40,000. In the US, due to high demand, the price has risen in recent weeks, and reached $200,000 per flight. Calcalist quotes ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav as saying “Last week there was even a case where people paid $270,000 for a private flight.”

Private jet on the tarmac / James via Flickr

There are many stories like that flying around, about machers who take advantage of desperate, rich mourners, who pay up hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure a flight to Israel and a burial there. Also: private planes are often too small to accommodate the elaborate shipping regulations of Israel’s health ministry, and so they simply ditch them and fly the bodies in their shrouds alone.

Once the bodies land in Ben Gurion, the rate for transporting them to their designated burial society runs as high as $1,300. The cleansing service may cost as much as $800, and the burial plot as high as $35,000.

But Chevra Kadisha officials who spoke to Calcalist insist that the bulk of those astonishing sums goes to the wheeler-dealers who deliver the bodies to their destinations.

The people who suffer the most from the current astonishing hike in this ghoulish industry are the diaspora Jews of modest means whose loved one had purchased a plot in the Holy Land but they can’t afford to fly them. They are now encumbered with the additional cost and hardship of interring them temporarily until the rates for flying them to their final destination come down.

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