Washington Jewish Week, August 3, 2000
Stein Hebrew, Takoma Funeral Homes Close
Prepaid customers scramble for new arrangements
by Merry Madway Eisenstadt
Prepaid customers at Stein Hebrew and Takoma Funeral homes scrambled last week to transfer their funeral arrangements to new providers, in the wake of those two firms’ closures Aug 1. And as word spread that some customers may not receive full refunds of interest accrued on invested principal if they request an outright refund of their contracts, calls were sounded to take Jewish funeral services out of the hands of non-Jewish conglomerates.
“The Jewish community needs to get together and open up a no frills, nonprofit Jewish funeral home dedicated to providing funerals in accordance with Jewish tradition,” said Rabbi Saul Koss, director of Jewish Chaplaincy Services, a Jewish Federation of Greater Washington community service program. Koss advocates basic, no-frills Jewish funeral arrangements, saying the for-profit industry pushes elaborate goods that are antithetical to Jewish custom.
Stein Hebrew’s closure and the diminished number of outlets for Jewish funerals will be discussed at upcoming Washington Board of rabbis’ meetings, said Rabbi Jack Luxemburg of Temple Beth Ami in North Potomac.
Luxemburg and many other rabbis have “been very concerned about the narrow choices we in the Jewish community have regarding funeral practices and funeral providers,” explained Luxemburg, who is also president of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.
“And we’ve all thought it might be well for the community to have more options, including providers who are in the Jewish community, rather than the corporate community. I think that such an effort, whether it would be a personal business effort or a combined effort of congregational communities and private interests, would be well received,” Luxemburg added. “It’s a concern that all of the rabbis share, and that is to have funeral providers that serve the Jewish community and bereaved families in our congregations in ways consistent with Jewish custom, practice and sensitivities.”
The vice president of the Jewish Funeral Practices-Committee of Greater Washington, David Zinner; expressed similar views. “Whether or not it makes sense to start an independent Jewish funeral home, is a discussion that needs to be held by all segments of the Jewish community;” Zinner said.
The call to explore the feasibility of non-profit Jewish funeral services is being heard by leaders of Washington Hebrew Congregation. The largest area Reform temple, with 3,000 membership units, is expecting to open late next month its massive, nonprofit cemetery geared to Jews of all denominations and congregations, as well as the unaffiliated.
Plans for WHC’s Garden of Remembrance, Gan Zikaron Memorial Park, include an on-site chapel at a later date. Chapel design plans include room in the lower level for a Jewish mortuary; although there are no firm plans-at this time to provide mortuary services.
We are still considering the possibility of having a mortuary at the site,” said Gan Zikaron executive director Sheldon L Grosberg. “We know the [area’s] rabbis would love us to do that and we may try to do that,” he added. “We are closely following our business plan in terms of financial capabilities. Based on that, we really can’t begin construction of the chapel until 2002.”
Stein and Takoma funeral homes notified between 147 and 200 prepaid customers by mail early last week that they would “cease to operate” Aug. 1. Stein, a formerly Jewish-owned home, and Takoma were owned by the corporate Loewen Group Inc., North America’s second-largest funeral industry conglomerate, based in Vancouver.
Mired in Chapter 11 reorganization, Loewen has closed the two outlets that serviced Jewish clientele and is consolidating operations among its four remaining Washington-area locations: Pearson Funeral Home in Falls Church; Arlington Funeral Home; Robert E. Evans Funeral Home in Bowie, Md.; and Huntt Funeral Home and Crematory in Waldorf Md.
“It’s lousy but it was coming,” said Koss, alluding to the parent company’s financial woes “They were hanging by a thread.”
Customers with preneed contracts were given three options to consider. Prepaid customers may transfer their contracts to one of the four surviving area Loewen firms and authorize the purchase of life insurance policies in which the prepaid funds will be held in trust and applied at the time of death and the funeral.
Although Loewen officials say the guarantees for contracted goods and services will transfer over to the four firms, two of the funeral homes listed have limited experience with Jewish practices and are located considerably further away.
For these reasons among others, one Kensington, Md. couple, that had prepaid at Stein Hebrew found the closure letter unsettling. Unfamiliar with most of the firms listed in her notice, this woman, who does not want her name used, is worried about signing up with one of the suggested funeral homes.
They’re not going to know about doing a Jewish funeral according to ritual, with the tahara [ritual washing] and with the shomer [guard] – the whole thing,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with it;” she said.
The problem is the alternatives being proposed are funeral homes they’ve never heard of; and [several] have never done Jewish funerals,” agreed JFPCGW’s Zinner.
Personnel from Stein and Takoma familiar with Jewish arrangements, however; have been transferred to Robert E. Evans, Arlington and Pearson Funeral Home, according to Bobby Mann, trust manager for the Loewen group.
Prepaid customers were also given the choice of transferring their contracts to an independent funeral home, Borgwardt in Beltsville, but initially that proposal was fraught with complications.
At first, Loewen indicated to customers calling its toll-free line that the interest accrued on principal would not transfer over. Borgwardt told Loewen’s customers that it would not be economically feasible to honor those price guarantees for the same levels of service and merchandise.
But later, as customers complained, Loewen said the interest would transfer along with the principal to Borgwardt.
Borgwardt’s Jewish arrangements are being handled by Ben Matthews, fomerly of Stein’s Hebrew; and Borgwardt is preparing a separate room for Jewish rituals washing and guarding of the body. The third option allows the prepaid customer to cancel the contract and receive a refund of the principal invested in the original contract. Loewen officials will consider partial refunds of interest on a “case-by-case” basis, depending on penalties or forfeited interest it has to pay or lose to liquidate Certificates of Deposits or other instruments in which principal was invested, according to Mann.
Both Stein and Takoma funeral homes are located over the District line, where there are no laws governing trusts for funeral arrangements, including the refund of interest earned on principal.
Without the interest, the principal on a prepaid contract taken out years earlier could be insufficient to cover current prices for the same funeral services and merchandise, believes Zinner.
“People thought they were buying a package and that it could transfer over to a new funeral home easily if they moved out of the area or if a firm closed, he said, “And what they’re finding out is that they are going to have to add money to get the same package” outside of the Loewen group.
However a spokesperson for Service Corporation International, Inc. says its two homes that handle predominately Jewish arrangements are working to accommodate the former Stein Hebrew and Takoma clients.
“Since the closings were announced, Edward Sagel Funeral Direction and Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapels have worked with a number of Jewish families to help them transfer their funeral pre-arrangements,” spokesperson Greg Bolton said. “In a vast majority of the cases, the contracts are transferable as is, with no additional expenditure required by the families to obtain merchandise and services of the same type and value as originally selected,”‘ he adds.
The scramble following Stein Hebrew’s closing, said Jewish Chaplaincy Services’ Koss, “is reinforcement of basic Jewish sensibilities and sensitivity – that we don’t make funeral arrangements until the person dies.”
Koss explained, “We never know when we’re going to die or where we’re going to die.”
Continued the rabbi who also heads the Jewish Free Burial Society, “If your synagogue is selling cemetery plots, and you’re in your elder years, you may want to buy two plots … but to actually make your arrangements and go to a funeral home and pick out a casket is against Jewish sensibilities.”
JFPCGW’s Zinner agreed, saying people should familiarize themselves with the JFPCGW contract and costs, set aside funds in conservative interest-bearing investments and inform their families. “Pre-learn, but don’t prepay.” declared Zinner.
To help Jewish consumers arrange for low-cost, basic traditional funeral arrangement, the JFPCGW negotiates contracts with local funeral providers on behalf of 35 area congregations with bereavement committees. The JFPCGW contracts make it unnecessary for Jewish consumers to purchase pre-need goods and services. (See sidebar)
“We believe prepaying is fraught problems and can lead to complications,” noted Zinner “especially in situations like we’re seeing here, when a funeral home goes out of business or when an individual relocates to another city.”
Even as pre-need arrangements are transferred to new firms, Zinner said, “that place could be sold or closed, and they may be in the same position again. It’s a problem that can continuously crop up” (He and others noted that SCI’s stock is at a 52-week low; at $2.50 a share. SCI owns Sagel and Danzansky-Goldberg.)
“People’s life spans are increasing,” he continued. “People who make arrangements when they are 50 to 60 years old may be looking at a contract that has to last as long as 30 to 40 years. People’s life spans are longer than most businesses.”