Florida cemetery scandal creates furor

PALM BEACH, Fla., Dec. 27 (JTA) — As the shock begins to wear off from allegations that Menorah Gardens Cemetery desecrated hundreds of graves, the Jewish community´s tears are hardening into anger. "If everything that is being reported turns out to be factually true, this becomes a wake-up call of tremendous proportions," said Rabbi Sholom Ciment of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greater Boynton Beach. The allegations against the cemetery, he said, warrant "an immediate and severe crackdown on all area Jewish cemeteries and funeral homes." A lawsuit seeking class-action status alleges that Menorah Gardens mishandled hundreds of bodies. Two state agencies are looking into possible civil and criminal charges. The lawsuit alleges that Menorah Gardens´ parent company, Houston-based Service Corporation International, oversold space at its Palm Beach County cemetery and another cemetery in Broward County. The lawsuit also claims remains were buried in the wrong places or in ways that encroached on other plots. Some remains allegedly were discarded or replaced with other bodies to cover mistakes and make more room. "What a disgrace," said Jack Frank, who recently came from Royal Palm Beach to check on the graves of his wife and friends. "It´s more than a disgrace — it´s obscene." At synagogues across the county, rabbis took phone calls from shocked congregants. "I can´t even count the number of calls," said Rabbi Alan Sherman, director of the chaplaincy program at the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. "We don´t know the extent of this," Sherman assured distraught callers. "We certainly don´t know how many graves are involved. It´s probably not every one." Rabbi Stephen Pinsky said his temple, Temple Beth Torah in Wellington, has received "several" calls from concerned members who have plots in the Beth Torah section of the cemetery. After talking with Menorah Gardens officials, Pinsky said he believes the synagogue´s section is not one of the areas in question. Pinsky said temple officials have been telling members to call cemetery officials directly with questions or concerns. In addition, the rabbi has consoled members by assuring them that what counts most is their continued love and respect for the deceased. "What´s important is that they´ve shown proper respect" for their loved ones, "and that they continue to do so," he said. But that is small comfort to Leslie Kolins. As soon as she heard about the lawsuit, Kolins drove from West Palm Beach to Menorah to check on the gravesites of her grandfather and uncle, who are both buried at the Palm Beach Gardens cemetery. "It just sickens me that there´s that possibility" that her relatives´ bodies were mishandled, she said. "Even though we checked, there´s talk that those may not be the same people that were originally buried there." Sherman said the grief counseling has just begun. "This is just the beginning," he said. "This process will go on for a long time." Two days after the allegations were made public, officials at the cemetery met with county rabbis to begin dealing with the situation, Sherman said. "They were very anxious to establish a dialogue with the rabbis. They didn´t need us to tell them the community´s concerns — the community has already let them know," said Pinsky, who also serves as president of the Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis. But Sherman said Menorah didn´t call the meeting until late Thursday night, Dec. 20. The meeting was set for 9 o´clock the following morning. "If a rabbi didn´t check his e-mail or voice mail Thursday, he didn´t know about the meeting," Sherman said. Only eight of more than 30 spiritual leaders showed up, Sherman said. He said Menorah officials did little to assuage concerns. "They were noncommittal, and they didn´t admit anything," he said. Pinsky said it is clear the company had just begun looking into the accusations. He said officials from SCI headquarters plan to visit with area synagogues in the next few weeks to address concerns directly. SCI officials will let board members know their schedule after the holidays, he said. "My impression is they had a long way to go before they know the extent of what did or did not happen," Pinsky said. But family members say an admission of guilt won´t be enough to end the scandal. Many people interviewed at the cemetery said they are desperate for reassurance that their loved ones are or will soon be resting in peace. As soon as he heard of the charges, Frank said, he came to the cemetery to check on his wife´s plot and to recite the mourner´s Kaddish. "What else can you do than have them checked?" he asked. "You can´t go to the front office; they´ll deny everything." To further complicate matters, Menorah closed its gates on the Sabbath immediately following the lawsuit, turning away dozens of would-be mourners. According to Sherman, officials at Menorah said the company wanted to "respect Jewish custom." "They don´t know there is nothing in Jewish law that prohibits visiting a grave on the Sabbath," he said. Some say ignorance of Jewish custom is one thing; ignorance of body desecration is dubious. Michael Jacobson, a Palm Beach County funeral director, said that someone at SCI had to know that something was going on. "You can´t move around bodies in the middle of the night and management doesn´t know anything," Jacobson said. According to Jacobson and Sherman, Jeff Frucht is the general manager of local Menorah operations. He did not return calls. SCI spokesman Terry Hemeyer said the company is "taking the allegations seriously, and we are conducting an internal investigation with all possible diligence." Concerned relatives have been conducting investigations of their own. "In the last couple of days, a lot of people have asked me to do this," said Daniel Dickey, groundskeeper at Menorah Gardens in Palm Beach, as he pushed an eight-foot metal rod down into the earth to confirm the placement of a vault. "If it´s there, that means it hasn´t been removed and nothing´s been destroyed." Dickey says he´s seen no evidence of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Sherman cautioned the local Jewish community to bear in mind that the case is still under investigation. "We need to wait until all the facts are in," he said. To those concerned about the allegations, he advised, "Go to the cemetery and ask to see the grave and to see the records." That´s exactly what Mitchell Heide of Boca Raton did. After he heard of the allegations, he and his wife drove to Menorah´s Palm Beach grounds. Heide said he came to take a photo of his father-in-law´s headstone, which he hadn´t seen since his burial. "Nothing is sacred anymore," Heide said. "It always takes a tragedy and the media to get hold of it until a corrective action is taken. Time will tell." Ciment said reverence for the dead is an integral part of Jewish custom. "The Torah directs us with specific rules and regulations as to how best to esteem and honor our dead in the most sacred means of preparation for burial, the funeral service, the burial and mourning period," he said. "No one in their wildest nightmare would have ever thought that the cemeteries, to which we have entrusted our dead, would so wantonly desecrate that which they have been explicitly contracted to do." Even so, both Sherman and Ciment agreed that giving up the time-honored Jewish prohibition against cremation is not a solution. "This is about the way" SCI "ran things, not whether people were buried or cremated," Sherman said. Both men also dismissed suggestions to have the shomer, or "guard," stand vigil over the body for a longer period. "Who can be at the cemetery 24/7 making sure that an agency who has been entrusted, contracted and paid to take perpetual care of our deceased would be the perpetrators themselves?" Ciment asked. According to Rabbi Pinchas Weberman, president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of South Florida, Jewish law requires that all parts of the body — even the blood from a murder scene — be buried together. Weberman added that Jewish law notes three objections to disinterment: It disturbs the soul, exposes the body and "embarrasses" the neighboring corpses. But for the most part, Rabbi Steven Westman of Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach said those he has consoled have been more interested in information about their loved ones´ status than in spiritual regulations. "It´s a pragmatic situation," said the rabbi, who said he believes the lawsuit may be unfounded. "I´m telling people to just sit tight and see how it plays out." The law firm Greenspoon, Marder, Hirschfeld, Rafkin, Ross & Berger, P.A., which filed the lawsuit against Menorah Gardens Cemetery, has created a hotline at (866) 476-7400 to provide the latest information on the legal action. Callers can also discuss joining the lawsuit. Information on the case also can be accessed at www.cemeteryclaims.com.

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