Jewish Journal

Careless Undertaking

by Mike Levy

Posted on Jan. 10, 2002 at 7:00 pm

Mitchell Heide places a stone on the gravesite of his father-in-law after hearing allegations of wrongdoing at Menorah Gardens Cemetery in Florida.

Mitchell Heide places a stone on the gravesite of his father-in-law after hearing allegations of wrongdoing at Menorah Gardens Cemetery in Florida.

A gruesome scandal at two Jewish cemeteries in Florida may have implications at a cemetery near you.

A class-action lawsuit alleges that Menorah Gardens oversold space at its Palm Beach County cemetery and at another cemetery in Broward County.

The lawsuit also claims that remains were buried in the wrong places or in ways that encroached on other plots. Some remains were allegedly discarded or replaced with other bodies to cover mistakes and make more room. The suit also names the cemeteries' parent company, Houston-based Service Corp. International (SCI).

Two Florida state agencies are looking into possible civil and criminal charges.

The lawsuit has sparked concern nationally about the oversight at cemeteries, particularly Jewish ones, where custom dictates a quick burial, eliminating time for investigation of proper burial procedures.

"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, Fla.

The allegations against the cemeteries warrant "an immediate and severe crackdown on all area Jewish cemeteries and funeral homes," Ciment told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Parent company SCI is the world's largest operator of cemeteries and funeral homes, one of the so-called "Big Three" in the international death-care industry. The company, whose stock is sold on the New York Stock Exchange (SRV), owns 3,188 funeral service locations, 485 cemeteries and 178 crematoria around the world.

In the United States, SCI owns 55 Jewish funeral homes. A company spokesperson could not say how many of the SCI cemeteries in the United States are Jewish or have Jewish sections.

The Menorah Gardens case is not the first time the Jewish community has clashed with SCI. 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 in New York have been accused of offering cremation and embalming and reportedly encouraging the purchase of expensive caskets and floral arrangements.

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

In recent years, SCI and Loewen Group International, another funeral company, have quietly purchased many family-owned and independent Jewish funeral homes. Most consumers are unaware that the homes have been purchased, because they generally do not change their names or publicize their corporate ownership.

For their part, SCI officials said in a statement that the practices alleged in the lawsuit were "disturbing" and "completely contrary to our policies and procedures" and that the company is conducting an internal review.

In Los Angeles, SCI owns Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills and Malinow and Silverman Mortuary in Westchester. The company also owns Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Mortuary and Memorial Park in Westlake Village, which has a Jewish section.

Groman Mortuary, which shares the grounds of Eden Memorial Park, is not affiliated with SCI. Jerry Marek, Groman's manager and mortician, said, "I grew up in the mortuary business, when it was all mom-and-pop operations. Now it's all large corporations."

But local representatives say two of the largest cemeteries in Los Angeles are owned by local non-profit organizations. Representatives of those owned by corporations say their practices remain unaffected.

In California, mortuaries and cemeteries are monitored by the state Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Cemetery and Funeral Bureau. California officials are concerned that if SCI had knowledge of what was allegedly going on at its Florida cemeteries, there might possibly be similar activities here.

G. V. Ayers, Cemetery and Funeral Bureau chief, said of the Florida lawsuit, "We are very much aware of that case, and we are monitoring it closely." He said that if Florida officials determine that SCI is involved in the alleged activities at Menorah Gardens, the DCA will investigate the company's practices in California.

At Malinow and Silverman Mortuary, workers said they welcome any scrutiny of their practices. Randy Ziegler, area manager at the mortuary, said the corporation's buyout of his mortuary has not affected the service families receive.

"SCI lets me run the business like it has been run since 1927," Ziegler said.

At Eden Memorial Park, sales manager Ira Polisky said, "Whatever happened in Florida is an absolute horror. Anything as horrific as that is not done under the auspices of the parent corporation.

"We take the trust that families put in our hands very, very seriously. I'm sure SCI is taking every possible step to investigate," he said.

A major industry competitor declined to cast doubts on the local SCI affiliates. Mark Friedman, CEO of Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, said, "I don't draw any correlation between the disastrous quality of service apparent in Florida and the parent organization."

Jewish cemeteries are not subject to state licensing and enforcement regulations. Although DCA monitors all California funeral homes and mortuaries, including Jewish ones, religious cemeteries are not regulated by the state.

But local cemetery officials point out their long history of service. "You have to go by the ownership -- what are their motives?" said Arnold Saltzman, general manager of Mt. Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary. Saltzman pointed to Mt. Sinai's ownership by Sinai Temple as evidence of the security of loved ones' resting places. He added, "Word gets out if there are problems with a cemetery."

Mark Friedman of Hillside, which is owned by Temple Israel of Hollywood, said, "We have imposed on ourselves the rules and regulations of the cemetery board."

Yossi Manela, a funeral director at Chevra Kadisha, said that in his experience, "all the local cemeteries are run perfectly. I don't think this [problem at Menorah Gardens] is something people here have to worry about."

Although no scandal such as the one in Florida has occurred at a Jewish cemetery in California, the state has not been immune to disastrously mismanaged death care.

Could it happen here? Yes, and it has happened before. In 2000, DCA officials found that Woodlawn Cemetery in Compton had dug up bodies and placed multiple burials in single plots. In 1998, the bureau found that Hidden Valley Cemetery in Martinez had delivered cremated remains to family members, but in reality, the bodies were still in storage. In 1995, Paradise Cemetery in Santa Fe Springs was found to be reselling graves. However, none of these scandals occurred at Jewish cemeteries.

Part of the problem is a lack of funding. Ayers said, "One of the aspects of California law is we are not required to inspect the cemeteries we license. And the way the politics and the budgets work with things like this, we are not staffed to do it, so we do inspections in response to complaints."

A bill proposed this year in the California Senate (SB 723) would require annual inspections of all cemeteries.

At Eden, Polisky said that with or without state oversight, "we're the shomers [guardians]. A cemetery is a holier place than a synagogue. That's how we approach our work."

Ayers recommended that families check the licenses of any mortuary or cemetery before committing to it, stressing, "Religious or not religious, we demand that all of them adhere to the standards of the law."

For information or to report a problem at a cemetery, call the Consumer Information Center at (800) 952-5210, or visit the Web site at www.dca.ca.gov/cemetery.

JTA writers Julie Wiener and Paul Carson contributed to this story.

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