Cemetery talks stall after latest meeting

Cemetery talks stall after latest meeting

Following 17 months, an agreement to disagree

New Jersey cemeteries may be facing legislative pressures come September, following the apparent collapse of 17 months of discussions between rabbis, communal officials, cemetery representatives, and state legislators.

The cemeteries now are regulated lightly by the state. They are nonprofit corporations, but state law requires that a majority of the New Jersey Cemetery Board consists of their representatives.

The New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations considered it a significant accomplishment this year that it was able to place a representative of the Jewish community – Rabbi Jay Kornsgold – on the board. His appointment was first proposed by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. In the interest of full disclosure, the president of the NJBR at the time was Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, who is now executive editor of The Jewish Standard. Nominating Kornsgold was part of an effort the NJBR undertook in 2007 to reform the way the state regulates its cemeteries.

Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and State Assemblyman Gary Schaer at a June meeting about cemetery issues. Larry Yudelson

The meetings were convened under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. They were shepherded through by State Assemblyman Gary Schaer, whose district includes the Orthodox community of Passaic, and by Teaneck’s Loretta Weinberg, the State Senate majority leader. Engelmayer chaired last Thursday’s meeting.

For the Jewish community, two of the most problematic aspects of cemetery practice have been the high fees charged for Sunday burials and Sunday late fees that reportedly can reach as high as $750 per half hour at one area cemetery, according to news reports.

In 2008, Weinberg first introduced a bill that would address one of the Jewish community’s concerns: the high cost of opening a grave on Sunday. The bill would bar fees beyond the actual cost of labor for Sunday interments. Another proposed bill would modify the makeup of the cemetery oversight board, ending the working board majority long enjoyed by the cemetery operators.

The high fees charged by one cemetery, Cedar Park-Beth El in Paramus and Emerson, have come in for special criticism because of the high salaries paid to its top executives. According to tax filings, the cemetery’s president, Herbert Klapper, earns a salary-and-benefits package in excess of $700,000. A cemetery employee said Klapper was not in the office this week and thus could not comment.

Neither the issue of Sunday fees nor the regulatory board were up for discussion last Thursday when the rabbis, cemetery representatives, and legislators met for what appears to be the last time.

Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, president of the National Association of Chevros Kadisha, the umbrella body of Jewish burial societies, also was at the meeting. He had negotiated an agreement between the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and Jewish cemeteries in New York State. Because many New York residents are buried in New Jersey, the issue is of concern to New York rabbis as well as their New Jersey counterparts. The New York Board of Rabbis, in fact, allied itself with the NJBR in 2008, as did the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.

The group had on its agenda last Thursday a draft eight-point agreement, prepared by Schaer and the NJBR, which attempted to summarize agreements that the two sides had reached during their discussions.

The list included Jewish concerns reflecting the demand of Jewish law, particularly practiced in Orthodox and Conservative circles, for immediate burial. Two clauses dealt with ensuring the possibility of burial on legal holidays and after normal business hours.

It also included an offer from the Jewish community to support reasonable efforts by the cemetery industry in its quest to sell monuments directly to consumers. Funeral homes already are permitted to make those direct sales.

And in an indication of how the cemetery field has been immune from the competitive pressures that often generate business innovation, one clause would allow mourners who wanted to pay by credit card to pay the funeral home if the cemetery itself did not accept such a payment.

The agreement also would have established a joint committee of the rabbis and the cemetery operators, which would have met regularly and served as a forum for complaints from the community.

The oversight mechanism, Engelmayer said after the meeting, was meant as a way to address the broader issues not included in the draft agreement. “We wouldn’t be able to limit complaints to what the agreement calls for, in any case. It was our belief that all types of complaints would come in to us, and we would take the issues directly to the cemeteries themselves.”

But the representatives of the four cemeteries said they opposed the idea of a signed agreement. They said it was impossible to sign, because of legal requirements and the need for board approval.

They objected to some of the items on the list that they considered “not Jewish issues.”

They also said that a signed agreement was against the spirit of the ongoing discussion – a statement that brought criticism from other participants at the meeting, according to a recording that was made available to the Standard.

“I would have a hard time convincing my constituents, over 2,000 of whom are Jewish, a substantial number Orthodox, without something written,” Schaer told the meeting. “I’m not sure I can say to any of my constituents that are Orthodox that if they call a cemetery before 9 a.m. on a Sunday or holiday, they will have a funeral take place. I’m not sure I can say they won’t be gouged.

“My intention is to have a document which has everyone’s imprimatur. If not, I’ll try to fulfill my responsibilities as a legislator in the New Jersey Assembly,” Schaer said.

For her part, Weinberg said that the meetings have convinced her that “the cemetery board needs to be made over.”

In New York State, the cemeteries are regulated by a board that only includes representatives of the government.

Also in New York State, by statute cemeteries are nonprofit organizations that must operate for the benefit of the plot owners. New Jersey, which is one of seven states that require its cemeteries to be nonprofit, does not have similar language in its regulations.

When it was apparent that no agreement was possible, Weinberg suggested that the cemetery operators should produce a document of their own that summarizes what they believe has been agreed upon. Schaer gave the cemetery operators until the end of August to respond to the proposed agreement with a paper of their own.

“I’m hopefully optimistic that we can take what you want and put on paper something that will satisfy everybody,” Cedar Park general manager Lawrence Rose told the meeting.

Engelmayer said that the NJBR supports Weinberg’s legislation. He noted that Rabbi Neal Borovitz, the current JCRC chairman, concurs. He also said that even if no agreement is signed, the 17 months of discussions between rabbis and cemetery owners have created “a better understanding of each other’s position and perhaps the forging of some relationships that in the future can prove beneficial to the community.

“In terms of substantive matters, on an individual basis, perhaps there’s been progress on some issues,” he said. “On an industry-wide basis, we’re very far apart.”

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