The Texas-based corporation that dominates the Jewish funeral market here is seeking to appeal to Orthodox clientele by catering to their special needs.
Although each of the 14 funeral homes in New York operated by Service Corporation International (SCI) provides (at added cost) optional halachic amenities such as tahara (ritual washing) and an overnight shomer, or guardian of the deceased, SCI has now redesigned one of its homes in Brooklyn to appeal strictly to Orthodox clientele.
The former Garlick funeral home on Coney Island Avenue in Midwood (one of the most densely Orthodox areas of the city) has merged its operations with another SCI-owned home, Kirschenbaum, allowing the Garlick building to reopen as Bais Hachaim, or house of the living.
The extensive renovations, totaling some $50,000, include a Hebrew sign on the outside, an on-premises-mikveh for ritually cleansing the deceased, a mechitza, separating men and women in the chapel, and an outdoor area with sound system for kohanim, who are prohibited from attending funerals. The facility has also hired a firm, Citicom, with expertise in marketing to the Orthodox community, and is seeking to meet with area rabbis to develop "mutual working relationships," according to a letter being circulated by the funeral director, Rabbi Noson Nadell.
Bais Hachaim’s promotional literature boasts of an Orthodox funeral director, Rabbi Nadell, and promises that it is the only chapel in Flatbush "exclusively conducting levayos [funerals] al pi halacha," or, according to halacha.
"We adhere to the highest possible halachic standards," said Rabbi Nadell in an interview. "The entire staff is shomrei [observant of] Torah and mitzvos."
But one feature currently absent from Bais Hachaim is a sign informing potential clients that it is operated by SCI. The Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association, largely funded and controlled by SCI, has gone to court to fight the implementation of regulations developed by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which mandate the placement of such signs as well as the posting of pricing policies and other changes.
The directors group claims the regulations are vague and unconstitutional. But in December, a Queens Supreme Court judge declined to issue an injunction preventing DCA from enforcing them.
The funeral operators will appeal the decision.
Joel Morris, director of I.J. Morris chapels, an SCI affiliate, said the regulations would harm private owners more than SCI since the regulation requires disclosure of anyone owning more than a 10 percent interest in a funeral home.
"If an owner dies and leaves shares in trust to his kids, creating six or seven business entities, all this nahrishkeit [foolishness] has to be on the signs, stationery, business cards and advertising," said Morris. "This is not a real-life issue. If anyone calls an SCI chapel we tell them yes, we are owned by SCI."
But according to Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jules Polonetsky, customers have a right to know that the establishment they are considering is not a "mom-and-pop" operation, as most New York Jewish funeral homes once were, but part of a corporate network.
"It is important that people know who owns that facility and the history of that company," said Polonetsky, who recently issued a report that charged SCI with increasing the costs of funerals in New York by reducing competition.
State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer recently forced SCI to sell three of its facilities to avoid an anti-trust lawsuit. Two of the three are Garlick and Kirschenbaum, both in Brooklyn, whose merger paved the way for Bais Hachaim to open. SCI’s prices are up to 40 percent higher than some independent homes, according to Spitzer.
Polonetsky speculated that Bais Hachaim was trying to blitz the community with publicity before it is required to notify customers of its link to SCI.
"I assume one of the reasons why they started advertising so widely is that they want to have ads out before the new [regulations] take effect," said the commissioner.
SCI now owns 50 percent of the funeral homes servicing the Jewish community in New York, or 14 out of 28.
Bais Hachaim seems to be a direct challenge to the Shomrei Hadas, a funeral home in Borough Park, which sometimes caters to the ultra-Orthodox and chasidic communities. In fact, Rabbi Nadell served as funeral director at Shomrei Hadas for 20 years before being hired by SCI. "I saw more opportunity here," Rabbi Nadell said of his reason for taking the new position.
Bais Hachaim would break up a monopoly among Orthodox funeral services by Shomrei Hadas, which has as many as five to ten funerals per day, according to Mordy Mehlman of Citicom, the marketing firm. He said Bais Hachaim’s average funeral cost, $2,800 (including a $350 plain pine casket) was lower than other funeral homes.
"We are not in the same price bracket" as other SCI funeral homes, said Rabbi Nadell. "We are tuned to the needs of the community, which certainly would not welcome such prices."
The citywide average cost of a funeral is $3,774, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs.
An owner of Shomrei Hadas said his cost was the same as Bais Hachaim’s, and that his establishment often lowered its price for destitute families. He declined to comment on the job switch by his former employee.
Mehlman said Bais Hachaim would be publishing a halachic guide to funerals and shiva as well as hosting various community lectures to increase ritual awareness. "Halachic superiority is the No. 1 issue," said Mehlman.