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Washington Jewish Week

Honor and comfort

D.C.-based group hopes to prevent cemetery misconduct

by Eric Fingerhut

Staff Writer

Late last month, Jews in South Florida were shocked by revelations about mistreatment of the dead at a number of cemeteries in the area.

Allegations in a class-action suit against the Menorah Gardens & Funeral Chapels chain include charges that the cemeteries broke open burial vaults and dumped human remains in a wooded area; buried deceased in locations different from those they purchased; dug up coffins and moved them to other locations in the cemetery after originally being placed in the incorrect plots; co-mingled body parts of different individuals; and buried bodies on top of another, instead of side by side.

David Zinner hopes that a new Washington-based national organization he is heading will help to prevent such misconduct in the future, as well as provide educational resources and assistance to Jewish communities around the country on how to deal with bereavement issues in their area.

Kavod v’Nichum — the name is derived from the Hebrew phrases for honoring the dead (k’vod hamet) and comforting the bereaved (nichum avelim) — was created when the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington decided to start a Web site, explained Zinner, Kavod v’Nichum’s volunteer executive director and the vice president of the JFPCGW.

Since anyone seeking information on the Internet about Jewish bereavement practices would now be able to access the extensive information that the group has placed on its site (www.jewish-funerals.org), Zinner said the committee decided to create an organization that would enable cities to network with each other.

The group officially started late in 2000, but is planning a more formal launch in the spring of 2003. Zinner said the organization is planning to hold a conference that would bring together representatives from across the United States and Canada, and is raising funds for that purpose. The group’s Web site receives about 45,000 different visitors a year, according to Zinner, and provides information on a number of models that communities can set up to address their needs.

The Washington area’s funeral practices committee is unusual, said Zinner, because it brings together representatives of more than 40 groups from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities.

The committee negotiates a contract with one or more local funeral homes to provide basic Jewish funeral services for a specific price, and has assisted and educated chevrei kadisha (burial societies) and bereavement committees at area congregations to expand their missions to include things such as dealing with funeral homes on behalf of a family and providing information on shiva, in addition to traditional functions such as tahara (ritual washing of the body) and shemira (watching over the body).

Other Jewish communities have set up different structures to deal with death issues. UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York recently bought an existing funeral home and is running it as a nonprofit enterprise, while Zinner noted that in Los Angeles a synagogue runs a funeral home.

Zinner pointed out that while having a community-wide structure to deal with funeral practices helps community members coping with a death in the family, it also gives those assisting the bereaved the positive feelings that come from performing mitzvot. They are both honoring and respecting the dead by performing tahara, for example, as well as making a difference in the lives of families in the community by being able to help someone in a time of need.

The JFPCGW also acts as a watchdog, helping to prevent exploitation of the bereaved by funeral homes. Zinner stressed that whatever happens with the Florida lawsuit, the Jewish community there must police itself and cannot leave oversight solely to government regulators.

It’s not going to be over when the lawsuit is over, Zinner said. There needs to be a Jewish response to this.

Locally, the JFPCGW is formulating a code of conduct for Jewish cemeteries in the Washington area, which it will ask individual cemeteries to sign. Bob Hausman, JFPCGW president and a member of the committee formulating the document, said that some sort of monitoring mechanism must also be developed to ensure that those cemeteries that agree to the code and get a hechsher from the funeral practices committee are living up to their commitments.

Both Maryland and Virginia have state agencies solely devoted to regulating cemeteries — the Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight and the Virginia Cemetery Board, respectively. (The District regulates cemeteries through the city’s Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Department.)

Steve Sklar, director of the four-year-old Maryland cemetery oversight office, said his agency is consumer complaint driven, investigating commercial, for profit cemeteries (cemeteries owned by religious organizations are exempt from state oversight because of church-state separation issues) where customers encounter problems.

Sklar noted, though, that having state laws and an agency overseeing cemeteries is not insurance against cemetery misconduct. Florida, for instance, has the most stringent laws regulating cemeteries in the nation.

You’re going to have some bad apples, he said, pointing out that there are plenty of laws against crime, yet crimes still occur.

Sklar said his agency helped with a problem at Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Adelphi. Customers were required to visit the cemetery to make a payment and to make sure the facility would be using the correct plot for the burial. But if an individual died on a Friday and a family wanted a Sunday funeral, the cemetery was requiring the bereaved to make that visit on Shabbat. Sklar said that the issue seems to have been adequately solved, because his agency has not received any complaints recently.

The Menorah Gardens cemeteries in Florida are owned by Service Corporation International (SCI), which operates thousands of funeral homes and more than 500 cemeteries worldwide. SCI owns two cemeteries in the Washington area, Mount Lebanon and King David Memorial Gardens in Falls Church.

In Florida, it is unclear if SCI’s management of the Menorah Gardens cemeteries is at fault, or if at least some of the problems already existed when SCI bought the cemeteries in 1995. Media reports indicate that some of the improprieties date back to the 1980s, although plaintiffs say they have evidence that SCI has been aware of the problems for at least four years.

Zinner said he also could not say whether SCI management is specifically at fault, but he was surprised that the corporation has not, thus far, taken any strong measures to try to restore confidence in the company.

If individuals want to make sure a cemetery is handling their relatives properly, Zinner said, they should go there periodically to check things out, ask to look at [the cemetery’s] records, meet and talk to the cemetery manager and find out such things as how often the grass is cut.