Cedar Park & Beth El Cemeteries’ announcement earlier this month that it would lower its Sunday burial rates was met with cheers from advocates of cemetery reform but also with calls for it and other cemetery associations to do more to bring the high cost of Sunday burials under control.
According to information sent out to area funeral directors, the current charge for a daily grave opening at Cedar Park & Beth El of $1,545 will be lowered to $1,500. The cemeteries had previously added a flat $750 surcharge for Sunday burials before ‘:30 p.m., but under the new rates, burials before 1′:30 will be assessed only a $475 surcharge. An extra $575 will be added for burials between 1’:30 and 1:30 p.m.; $675 between 1:30 and ‘:30; and $750 between ‘:30 and 3:30 p.m., representing a decrease of $’50 for that hour. The rate of $400 per half hour after 3:30 p.m. remains unchanged.
According to Herbert Klapper, president of Cedar Park & Beth El, the rate reduction is the result of a renegotiation with the union representing the cemetery association’s gravediggers. Previously, gravediggers who were called in on Sundays were required to stay for eight hours and had to be paid for the entire time, regardless of the number of funerals that day.
A stipulation in the new contract that applies only to new hires states that Cedar Park may send gravediggers home after four hours if there is not sufficient work.
"It used to be we had to pay for eight hours," Klapper said. "We’re passing the savings that we are not paying to our employees to the public."
Opponents of the high rates hailed the decrease as a small victory for their efforts.
"It’s an indication that we’re having an effect," said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and a columnist for this newspaper. "I wouldn’t call it a step forward but a positive development."
The NJBR, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the New York Board of Rabbis, the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and local legislators have been pooling their efforts for several months to bring about comprehensive reform among New Jersey’s cemeteries.
In addition to the higher cost of Sunday funerals, the group is concerned about a state-mandated 15 percent surcharge on graves purchased by a communal organization such as a synagogue and then transferred to its members. Although this charge has been on the books since the 1970s as a method of maintaining financial viability for cemeteries, it has been enforced only in recent years. Finally, the group wants to see a more diverse makeup of the state’s cemetery board, which regulates New Jersey’s cemetery industry. Currently, the board is mostly made up of cemetery administrators, which opponents say is a case of the regulated regulating themselves.
Engelmayer, who had not spoken to Klapper about the announcement, believes that the change was a result of pressure from the rabbis and their allies.
"I would be totally surprised if in a time when prices are going up everywhere for everything even such small reductions at Cedar Park came about not because of [these joint efforts] but for some other reason," he said.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-36) agreed that the price change was likely due to the growing campaign.
"The specter of beginning this discussion has already created a reaction and it is an improvement but hardly the goal," Weinberg said. "Some of these prices are still out of sight."
The state legislature is considering bills that would abolish the 15 percent surcharge, dispose of Sunday overtime charges, and add more members of the public to the cemetery board. All three bills remain in their various committees, and Weinberg does not expect any action on them until the fall.
"There’s a lot more that we have to do," Engelmayer said. "What this has done is convinced us that we have to add to the pressure. We’re going to continue our campaign and, in fact, add to it in the coming year."