Florida Cemetery Controversy Could Be Just Tip of the Iceberg

A lawsuit alleging that Jewish cemeteries in Florida desecrated remains of buried people could have implications for Jews across the United States.

The cemeteries’ owner, the Houston-based Service Corporation International chain, is the country’s largest funeral company, according to The New York Times.

The current class-action lawsuit is not the first time SCI has clashed with the Jewish community.

A 1999 report by the New York City Consumer Affairs Commission found that SCI owned 14 of the city’s 28 Jewish funeral homes, including four out of five in Manhattan.

The consumer affairs report noted that Jews are particularly vulnerable to exploitative practices by funeral companies like SCI because Jewish law dictates a prompt funeral, leaving Jews little time to shop around or compare prices.

In New York, SCI has been accused of price gouging and of aggressively marketing expensive items and services inconsistent with traditional Jewish funeral practices.

For example, Jewish law forbids cremation and says Jews should be buried in plain caskets. However, many Jewish funeral homes offer cremation and embalming and encourage the bereaved to buy expensive caskets and floral arrangements.

In the wake of the 1999 report, New York State’s attorney general sued SCI, charging it with “monopolistic practices that reduced competition in the New York market.”

An out-of-court settlement last year required SCI to sell three of its Jewish funeral homes in New York, one of which was purchased in March 2001 by several New York Jewish community organizations that are now running it as a nonprofit.

In addition, the New York investigation led to new rules requiring funeral homes to disclose their ownership.

SCI does not own cemeteries in New York, however, due to a state law that prohibits for-profit companies from owning cemeteries.

But an SCI-owned Jewish cemetery in Maryland has drawn criticism from the Jewish community there, according to David Zinner, the head of a new Washington-based national group, Kavod v’Nachum, that is forming to provide resources and information on Jewish funeral practices.

Zinner, who is vice president of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington, said a local SCI- owned cemetery has been accused of not burying people in the right plots and of forcing families to make payments and sign contracts on Shabbat.

Zinner said he was disturbed to learn of the case in Florida, noting that if allegations are proven, “not only did they mess up morally, spiritually and ethically, but also legally.”

He was not surprised. however.

“What we’re seeing in Florida is not news for people familiar with SCI, but it’s a little more extreme,” Zinner said. “Management issues and administrative issues in cemeteries are complex, and when you overlay that with Jewish issues, a lot of attention to detail is required.”

No one outside SCI knows how many cemeteries the company owns, and a company spokeswoman did not return JTA’s calls. But the corporation is believed to own a sizeable percentage of Jewish cemeteries and funeral homes throughout the United States.

In recent years, SCI and Loewen, another funeral company, have quietly purchased many family-owned and independent Jewish funeral homes.

Most consumers are unaware that the homes have been purchased, as they generally do not change their names or publicize their corporate ownership.

For their part, company officials said in a statement earlier this month that the practices alleged in the lawsuit were “completely contrary to our policies and procedures” and that the company is conducting an internal review.

The investigation into SCI’s practices apparently prompted one of the firm’s employees to commit suicide last week. The wife of Peter Hartmann, 45, who managed four funeral homes in Florida, said he was distraught over the issue.

Jules Polonetsky, who oversaw the 1999 report as New York’s consumer affairs commissioner, said he wasn’t surprised to learn of the Florida case.

Similar abuses have “happened elsewhere before, and sadly, without a greater level of communal oversight of what happens in the funeral and cemetery world, it’s destined to happen again,” he said.

Polonetsky, now chief privacy officer for the media company DoubleClick, said SCI is not the only offender and that nonprofit and independently owned cemeteries also have been known to neglect graves or treat family members poorly.

In New York, there have been problems with several nonprofit cemeteries not allowing people to visit family member’s graves on Jewish holidays, Polonetsky said. In another case, a New York cemetery was accused of dumping debris near graves.

Part of the problem, Polonetsky said, is that hardly anyone in the Jewish community is monitoring the cemeteries or advocating for people who have plots there.

Previous generations of U.S. Jews participated in burial societies, collectives that enabled members to purchase burial plots cheaply and “looked out for concerns,” Polonetsky said.

But most such groups have died off with their members or are near bankruptcy.

Given Americans’ squeamishness about death, it is difficult to mobilize people for funeral-related activism.

“When I made this an issue in government, people said, ‘Oh, who wants to talk about these things?’ ” Polonetsky said. “Funerals and death are not a cause celebre.”

So how can individuals protect themselves and their loved ones from having their graves neglected or even desecrated?

Zinner advises three steps. First, people should visit the cemetery, talk with the staff, check to see how it’s maintained and ask to view the cemetery’s burial records to see if they are organized and well-maintained.

“If you see any problems, ask questions, take notes and take pictures,” he advises.

In addition, Zinner urges people to be in contact with the local synagogue or federation near the cemetery and share concerns with them about the cemetery’s management.

A third step is to contact the state attorney general’s office and find out if your state has an official in charge of monitoring cemeteries.

“It’s important for them to hear from people,” Zinner said.

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