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On Feb. 4, 2008, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the New York Board of Rabbis, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Northern New Jersey came together to urge changes in the way the State of New Jersey regulates its cemeteries.

Legislators who were present promised action, yet little “action” has occurred in the year just passed. Without your help and the help of your friends, very little will happen in the year ahead.

You need to step up to the plate if we are to change the way cemeteries in New Jersey do business.

First, however, a refresher course on the overall issue. Simply stated, New Jersey lacks effective regulation of its cemeteries. This has led to apparent abuses, especially in what some cemeteries charge for their various services.

Take the cost of opening an already-purchased grave. To be sure, it costs cemeteries money to open a grave and ready it for a burial, and those costs are passed on to the consumer. That is not the problem. What some cemeteries charge, however, is the problem.

Weekday grave-opening charges in this area can run as low as $1,000 and as high as $1,600. On Sundays, those charges can go as high as $2,300.

On top of that is a state-mandated surcharge intended to go into each cemetery’s preservation fund. The fee is 15 percent of the retail price charged by a cemetery for the purchase of a grave. Thus, that fee in our area ranges from well under $100 to well over $200.

To be clear, this fund is important. Once a cemetery runs out of land for graves, it has nothing left to sell. Unless there is money set aside to run it when the income stream disappears, it is likely to run down or eventually be abandoned. As it is, many cemeteries in New Jersey already are operating at losses.

That is not true of every cemetery, however. Some, in fact, have excellent incomes and large preservation funds, yet their rates are often higher and seem more designed to maximize profits than serve the consumer.

Of course, no one goes into business to lose money. New Jersey, however, is one of only seven states to mandate that its cemeteries be operated not-for-profit. Another such state is New York. In Section 1501 of its law regulating cemeteries, New York State insists that those cemeteries “shall be conducted on a non-profit basis for the mutual benefit of plot owners therein.” New Jersey’s law has no such language.

How does New York’s law work out for “the plot owners therein”?

One Queens cemetery opens its graves on weekdays for $836. A Long Island cemetery charges $1,047. As for extra charges on Sundays – there are none. Across the board, New York cemetery fees are considerably less than those in New Jersey.

New York cemeteries are less expensive because that state regulates its cemeteries differently.

In New York, for example, in seeking to raise their fees, cemetery operators must “consider the propriety and the fair and reasonable cost and expense of rendering the services or performing the work for which such charges are made.” In New Jersey, all they need to do is send the cemetery board a letter, include a filing fee, and wait for the letter to arrive. The new rates take effect when the envelope is delivered and the rates are posted on a bulletin board in the cemetery office.

It is hard to imagine that this situation will change on its own, especially because of another difference in the laws of the two states.

In New York, the cemetery board is made up of three people – the secretary of state, the state attorney general, and the state commissioner of health. In New Jersey, by law, the 10-person cemetery board must include five members “who have served, for a period of at least five consecutive years immediately preceding appointment, as a member of the governing board or an official of a cemetery company.” In other words, in New Jersey, the industry virtually polices itself.

The campaign the rabbis and the JCRC began a year ago has had some effect. One area cemetery reduced some of its prices, albeit by negligible amounts. Our local legislators, meanwhile, have introduced bills to end the added Sunday fees and to ease the 15 percent fund assessment. These bills, however, have stalled in committee.

This is where you come in. You can help get these bills out of committee and onto the State Assembly and Senate floors. To do so, you need to e-mail or telephone the chairmen of these committees and local legislators who serve on them to urge them to act quickly.

In the Assembly, the bills are stuck in the Regulated Professions Committee. Its chairman is Assemblyman Vincent Prieto. His district office telephone number is (201) 770-1303 and his e-mail address is AsmPrieto@njleg.org. Also on that committee is Assemblywoman Joan Voss. Her Fort Lee office number is (201) 346-6400; her e-mail address is AswVoss@njleg.org.

In the State Senate, the bills are stuck in the Commerce Committee. Its chairman is Montclair Sen. Nia H. Gill. Her office phone number is (973) 509-0388 and her e-mail address is SenGill@njleg.org. Also on the committee is Sen. Gerald Cardinale of Cresskill. His phone number is (201) 567-2324 and his e-mail address is SenCardinale@njleg.org.

As for which bills we are talking about, the first is S1653 and A2355. It prohibits cemetery companies from charging additional fees on Sundays for grave openings. In the Senate, it is sponsored by Loretta Weinberg and Bob Gordon. In the Assembly, it is sponsored by Gary S. Schaer, Reed Gusciora, Linda R. Greenstein, and Connie Wagner.

Sens. Weinberg and Gordon introduced the second bill in the Senate, S1439. Assembly members Wagner, Schaer, and Caroline Casagrande introduced it in that chamber, where it is known as A2687. This bill eliminates the 15 percent fee charged by cemetery companies on the transfer of graves, crypts, and niches.

Without your help, we stand little chance of seeing these bills emerge from committee anytime soon. That means we stand little chance of even beginning to get more effective cemetery regulation in New Jersey.

We will continue our efforts, but the ball is now in your court.