Robert Scott’s parents survived the Holocaust, where they personally witnessed human remains being burned, scattered and dumped. Now Scott is among at least 500 families who have expressed alarm this week that relatives’ remains may have been mishandled by Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills, one of Southern California’s largest Jewish cemeteries.
This week attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit against Eden and its owner, Texas-based Service Corporation International, claiming that groundskeepers were ordered to break concrete vaults in which caskets were buried to squeeze graves closely together, and that they dumped or scattered any remains that fell out of the broken vaults.
The suit was filed on Sept. 10 on behalf of Charles Sands, who was not available for comment. Attorneys said that since the filing they have received more than 500 calls from concerned families, and they believe up to 10,000 families might end up being involved in the case.
The suit also alleges that Eden secretly buried bodies in the wrong plots and misplaced or lost remains.
Around 40,000 people are buried in Eden, which owns 72 acres, a good portion of it still unused. The cemetery, at Sepulveda Boulevard and Rinaldi Street, has been in operation for more than 50 years.
Service Corporation International, one of the largest funeral home and cemetery operators in the country, with 1,700 locations, says the claims against Eden are unproven, and that it is launching its own investigation into the allegations.
“I think the most important thing to remember is we’ve been serving this community for a long time and we’ve done a very good job of it,” said Lisa Marshall, spokeswoman for SCI, which purchased Eden in 1985. “These are allegation we take seriously, but they are just that — allegations. No one has proven anything yet.”
Attorney Michael Avenatti, who brought the class-action suit on behalf of an as-yet-undetermined number of plaintiffs, said a months-long investigation has produced documentary and testimonial evidence from former employees that will prove Eden has been mistreating human remains.
“The conduct in this case is nothing short of horrific,” Avenatti said.
A former groundskeeper, interviewed by Fox 11 News, said he had been ordered to break through vaults and discard any remains that fell out. Another former employee told The Jewish Journal that in 2005 she witnessed a funeral where a body that had been flown in from Florida was placed in the casket and buried while still wrapped in a plastic bag, contrary to procedure. She pointed this out at the funeral but was told not to interfere, she said, adding that her formal complaints to regional managers about the incident were brushed off.
Avenatti and his co-counsel, Ed Ricci, are asking the Jewish community to urge California Attorney General Jerry Brown to launch an investigation into practices at Eden. Having the attorney general involved will speed up the process of collecting evidence, Ricci said, since it could take months for a judge to grant attorneys in the class-action suit permission to investigate the property to determine which graves, if any, were affected.
Ricci, based in Florida, represented plaintiffs in a suit against SCI involving Menorah Gardens cemeteries near West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. In 2004, SCI agreed to pay $100 million in the case for charges similar to those being brought in the case against Eden.
Ricci says that investigators in Florida found that there were no remains where grave markers were placed, that some vaults were damaged with a backhoe when workers were digging nearby graves, and that people were not buried under the right marker.
Ira Polisky, Family Service Manager at Eden, says he has no idea where the allegations stem from, and that the families and deceased have always been treated with the utmost respect in the 15 years he has been at Eden.
“We have always done everything above reproach,” he said. “We have always been totally transparent with our families, and if they have a question about anything they can come to the park and look in our files, and one of our counselors will go out there with the family and answer any questions they have about their loved one’s space.”
SCI spokeswoman Marshall acknowledges that some irregularities at Eden were brought to their attention in 2007, but said those were handled with the families. She declined to go into more detail.
She says the highest level of training, policy and procedures is in place to assure that remains are treated properly.
Scott said he has no complaints about the staff or treatment at Eden, where he buried his father about 20 years ago and his mother a little more than a year ago. He says that while sometimes the grounds keeping hasn’t been perfect, his complaints were minor. He had noticed, he said, that graves seem extremely close together, and that recently even areas that were formerly pathways appeared to have been filled in. Scott has no information about whether his parents’ plots were affected by the current allegations, but he wants to find out.
“Respect for the dead is huge in Jewish tradition,” said Scott, a retired furniture manufacturer. “Regardless of how religious you are, righteousness and justice are such core elements of Judaism and for a Jewish cemetery to act contrary to everything we know is right is just unimaginable, if these allegations are true.”
To contact lawyers, go to www.edenclaims.com. To contact Eden, call (818) 361-7161.