Mourners gathered at Cedar Park-Beth El Cemetery in Paramus on Monday to say goodbye to Linda Cohen, ending a three-month ordeal to have her body released by the Regional Medical Examiner’s office.
Cohen, a 59-year-old unmarried woman, was discovered dead of an apparent heart attack in her North Bergen apartment on Nov. 29. Her brother Gerald, her only living relative, lives in a facility for mentally disabled adults, which left no one to claim her body. As a result, her body remained in the morgue until members of the Jewish community could arrange for its release.
“Under Jewish law people should be buried without any undue delay,” said Barry Wein of Eden Memorial Chapels in Fort Lee. “Three months is really a disgrace.”
Still, he did not blame the morgue, which, he said, acted appropriately. The problem, he said, is that no organization exists to take charge in events such as this when there is no apparent responsible next of kin.
Through an organization in Wayne meant to help preserve area cemeteries, Hackensack attorney Steven Morey Greenberg learned of the case and turned to Eden’s Wein and Frank Patti for help in providing Cohen with a proper Jewish funeral.
“Of the 613 mitzvahs, the greatest mitzvah is that of taking care of our dead,” Patti said.
First, though, they had to overcome legal roadblocks since none of them were related to Cohen or even knew her.
Greenberg began calling area cemeteries and discovered that Cohen’s family had a crypt at Cedar Park-Beth El, where her parents, Harold and Shirley, were buried. The elder Cohens had made arrangements for their children to be placed in the mausoleum but had not envisioned that their daughter would die before their son. While the cemetery had been found, a problem remained of persuading the morgue to release the body.
“There was no one coming forward to whom the medical examiner could release the body,” Greenberg said. “None of the categories that exist – parent, child, spouse – existed other than the brother who couldn’t.”
After negotiating with Cohen’s landlord, Greenberg was able to enter her apartment, where he spent last week searching for clues to family members, an emergency contact, or any arrangements she might have made.
“The concern by everybody is who’s authorized to do this,” Greenberg said. “We said we just wanted to come in for the purpose of looking for a will or documents that would give any instructions on how this is supposed to be taken care of.”
The search came up empty so Greenberg, Patti, and Wein were able to convince the morgue to release Cohen’s body to Eden Memorial. Expenses for the funeral were covered by Lifespire, the New York organization devoted to disabled adults that Cohen and her family had long supported. Cohen’s brother, Gerald, lives in a Lifespire facility in Brooklyn. The organization was pivotal in persuading the morgue to release Cohen’s body, Greenberg said.
“They went way beyond anything anyone would have expected to be done,” he added.
Cohen served on the organization’s board of directors and aided in fund-raising, according to Thomas McAlvanah, executive vice president of Lifespire, who described her as “a sweet person and a pleasure to deal with.”
“After her dad died, she pretty much took up the gauntlet as a member of the family,” he said. “Not every sibling can do that, and Linda did. She showed amazing devotion to the cause of people with disabilities.”
Greenberg, a member of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, called Rabbi David Feldman, the center’s rabbi emeritus, for help with the funeral. After reading through Cohen’s rÃ©sumÃ© and speaking with Lifespire, Feldman felt he got a sense of who Cohen was.
“She was totally devoted,” he told the Standard Tuesday. “She helped all those, with a concentration on her brother, who were in need of these services. She set an example of service and benevolence to the needy.”
While Cohen’s tale eventually ended with a dignified funeral, all involved warned that such a case could easily happen again. Making pre-arrangements and informing one’s legal representative is the only way to avoid similar occurrences, they cautioned.
“People really should take this under consideration and make pre-arrangements,” Patti said. “This may be an extreme case, but a person shouldn’t go to a morgue.”
Feldman praised the work of Patti, Wein, and Greenberg to have Cohen’s body released while Greenberg reiterated that there is no higher commandment than to take care of the dead.
“It validates the idea that the community will always take care of you,” he said. “It’s a very good feeling to know that’s true.”