Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Around the Jewish World As France Bakes in the Heat, Community Struggles to Bury Dead

August 18, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

With France sizzling under 100-degree temperatures this month, Parisian Jewish organizations have struggled to cope as unburied corpses have had to wait up to four days for Jewish burial.

According to the Paris Consistoire, the principal organization dealing with the religious needs of the community, the Jewish death rate has almost tripled since a record heat wave began in early August.

Jacques B’Chiri, head of the Consistoire burial board, told JTA that the Consistoire was handling around 30 burials a day, considerably higher than the 10 to 15 per day that is the average for this time of year.

“The situation is very difficult indeed,” B’Chiri said. “We have bodies waiting days for burial, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

At the Pantin cemetery in northern Paris, the largest in the region that has a sizeable Jewish section, Jewish funeral directors said their companies were conducting burials every 15 minutes.

“Usually there’s at least an hour gap between funerals. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Philippe Hay, a funeral organizer from Benhamou burial services. “People call us and we tell them that they have to wait a minimum of three days. Sure, it’s not easy for them.”

B’Chiri said that hospitals were struggling with the number of bodies in morgues, “which were piled up in such a way that we can’t always get to them quick enough.”

“The cold storage morgues in the hospitals are full. The government said it’s going to bring in special plastic rooms to hold up to 100 bodies, but we’re still waiting for that,” he said.

B’Chiri said he was particularly perturbed by the fact that, in many cases, nobody was around to comfort Jewish mourners or even to perform ceremonies.

“It’s August and the rabbis are all away on holiday, and they haven’t left replacements,” he said. “Outside of Paris it’s even worse. There’s nobody around in Orleans and Tours, and people are dying.”

As for the ritual cleansing of the bodies after death, known as taharah, B’Chiri said that the Consistoire was coping, “but there’s nobody around to say Shema Yisrael or light candles.”

The Consistoire may have to call rabbis back from holiday, B’Chiri said, adding, “What can you do when the Consistoire itself has practically shut down for the summer?”

Traditionally, Parisians leave the capital in droves during August, heading south or west to the coast.

The Consistoire isn’t the only organization that’s understaffed: An operator at the United Jewish Social Funds, the umbrella welfare and educational organization of French Jews, said, “There’s virtually no one here.”

At L’Ose Medical, one of the oldest Jewish medical institutions in Paris, a recorded message said the building was closed until Aug. 22.

At CASIP, Paris’ Jewish social services group, a spokeswoman said the organization had adopted special measures in its old-age homes in Paris and in the southern suburb of Creteil.

Esther Freiberg, director of the CASIP-run Amaragi Home in Paris’ 19th district, said that after the heat wave started, all outside trips for residents were cancelled and around-the-clock medical supervision was implemented for the 80 residents.

“We made sure that everyone drank mineral water or sodas every 20 minutes or so, to make sure that body liquids and salts were kept up, and thank God there were no mortalities,” Freiberg said.

In general, the Jewish community in the capital was better off than the majority of the population, never getting to the point that they couldn’t transport bodies from homes to hospital morgues. The community has enough vehicles to cope with the extra demand, Consistoire officials said.

The figures for the 350,000-strong Jewish community in the Paris region mirrored the situation across the capital and in much of France, with reports suggesting that as many as 3,000 people had died during the heat wave.

Hardest hit were old people and those with serious medical conditions exacerbated by the scorching temperatures.

While government statistics showed that many had died at home, the situation in Paris hospitals and centers for the aged also was poor.

With little experience in dealing with such a heat wave — the hottest and most prolonged in France in over 100 years — many institutions lacked the necessary cooling facilities.

A good deal of criticism was leveled at the government, with a number of doctors’ unions saying that ministers had done too little, too late.

Some of the major Jewish institutions, however, did not wait for government guidelines to arrive.

With over 500 residents, the Rothschild Foundation Home for the Aged and Geriatric Center in central Paris, one of the largest non-profit institutions of its kind in France, began implementing emergency procedures on Aug. 4, a week before Ministry of Health guidelines arrived.

According to the center’s director, Jean-Marie Descamps, these procedures pushed off a large increase in mortalities until Aug. 11 and 12 — the hottest two days, when temperatures reached 107 in the shade and close to 120 in the sun.

Just as problematic, the heat wave intensified as it continued, and certain areas of the building never truly cooled down.

Descamps said he was not permitted to divulge exact mortality figures for the center, but he said there had been “a very high rise, with many more deaths than is usual for this time of the year.”

“Even if there are no more deaths from now until the end of the month, there will have still been more than in the whole month of August 2001,” Descamps said, adding that the choice of 2001 was indicative since that, too, had been a particularly warm summer.

“Here, where we also have a medical center with around 80 beds, the average age is about 85 and many people have serious medical problems, which means they find it hard to reduce their body temperatures,” he said. “We have, though, been able to combat problems of dehydration, and we go around the building all the time insisting that people drink. Thankfully, no one has died of dehydration.”

The Rothschild center is not air-conditioned because it could be dangerous for such an institution, Descamps said. Staff had been told to apply wet towels and increase showers to residents during the heat wave.

Yet that also had presented problems, Descamps said: Being forced to take more frequent showers during the heat wave “was not easy for those who came through the Shoah.”

With temperatures falling to more comfortable levels by the end of the second week of August, Descamps said that mortality rates had steadied.

Recommended from JTA