The State Legislature is examining concerns about cemetery regulation brought to its attention by area rabbis.
The average cost of a funeral in New Jersey is several hundred dollars more than in neighboring New York, and families can expect to pay even more for Sunday burials.
As The Jewish Standard previously reported, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, assisted by other rabbis, has taken the lead in protesting a 15 percent surcharge that cemeteries have begun imposing on communal organizations that buy mass gravesites and transfer them to individuals. Although the regulation designed to ensure that the nonprofit cemeteries have sufficient funds to operate has been on record since 1971, it was not enforced uniformly until recent years.
Also at issue is the higher cost of burial on Sundays due to overtime charges from union workers. Jews, who are required to bury their dead as soon as possible but not permitted to hold a funeral on Shabbat, often must pay higher prices because they may have no choice but to hold Sunday funerals.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) and Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Robert Gordon (D-38) introduced identical resolutions in both houses in March that would eliminate the surcharge. In late February, Schaer co-sponsored legislation that would prohibit cemeteries from charging additional fees for Sunday funerals; Weinberg and Gordon sponsored an identical bill in the Senate last week.
"The problems that we recognize and were helped to understand more clearly by the board of rabbis were the difficulties being faced by all citizens in terms of the cemeteries," Schaer told the Standard on Wednesday.
"The costs to open a grave on Sunday are starting to add up to thousands of dollars," Weinberg told the Standard earlier this week.
Representatives of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, local legislators, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and the New York Board of Rabbis met in early February under the aegis of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Bergen County. At that meeting, at the UJA-NNJ’s River Edge headquarters, the rabbinical boards and JCRC issued a joint statement calling for an overhaul of New Jersey’s oversight of the cemetery industry.
A weekday grave opening at one area cemetery, as cited in the statement, is $1,545. A Queens cemetery, however, charges only $836. The statement goes on to cite the charge on Sundays at the local cemetery of $’,317.50, almost $800 more than on a weekday.
After a review last week of the proposed legislation, Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, president of the NJBR and a columnist for this paper, called the fixes "Band-Aids" that did not go far enough.
"While we appreciate this effort, we are anticipating the promised arrival of proposed new legislation on the regulating of the industry," he said. At February’s meeting, Engelmayer said, legislators promised comprehensive solutions by Pesach.
Addressing Engelmayer’s concerns, Weinberg said, "This is all part of a larger issue. Though these bills are attempting to address them in a piecemeal way, we hope we are going to come up with a larger universal way to address these problems, starting with the cemetery board made up of cemetery owners."
The state’s cemetery board has 10 positions, five of which are specifically reserved for cemetery representatives. According to the joint statement, the composition of the cemetery board is a major concern to the Jewish community in that "the industry virtually polices itself ."
"One of the key problems we’re facing in New Jersey is that there is a cemetery board essentially appointed by the governor but composed almost exclusively of members of the cemetery community," Schaer said. He suggested a model based on the New York cemetery association, which is composed of members of the community at large, the attorney general, and several commissioners.
Schaer was hopeful that more comprehensive legislation would follow this summer after the budget is settled. The 15 percent surcharge and additional Sunday charges are two of the "most egregious problems" that could be addressed quickly, he said.
While the bills are receiving support from local legislators and rabbis, they have not been as well received in the cemetery industry.
According to Judy Welshons, director of the New Jersey Cemetery Association, the proposed legislation will actually end up costing people more for Sunday burials. Additional fees apply on Sundays because of the overtime labor costs associated with union laborers working a sixth day of the week. Typically although this is not the case in all New Jersey cemeteries those costs are divided equally among all the funerals held at a cemetery on a Sunday. If the bill restricting Sunday costs passes, Welshons said, families would find themselves shouldering the total cost of the Sunday overtime for their funerals, rather than a portion of the total overtime bill for that day.
"The association feels that if you’re having to provide services on a day that would normally be like your sixth day of operations, additional charges in terms of overtime are not out of the question," she said. "The way [the bill is] written makes it more difficult for families."
Most cemeteries have a formula for figuring out the additional costs, she said.
"Sunday overtime is $450," said Peter Blacksberg, president of Riverside Cemetery in Saddle Brook. "Most people pay differentially on Sunday. The problem becomes what do you allocate to each burial?"
If the bill passes, it could restrict some of the cemeteries’ revenue because they still have to pay those additional labor costs, he added.
"It would lower some of the revenue potentially on a Sunday," he said. "It might require a cemetery to increase other fees for example, the overall burial fee across the board."
Schaer disagreed with those assessments.
"The bill states clearly that cemeteries can only raise the amount of a weekday to a Sunday by the amount they’re being hit with," he said. "We’ve learned that the cemetery owners clearly have an obvious self-interest in maintaining the status quo, which is simply wrong."
According to the bill’s text, "a cemetery company shall not charge an additional fee for opening a grave or for rendering any other services attendant to an interment when those services are rendered on Sunday, except that any actual additional or increased costs, such as increased labor costs, which the cemetery company incurs as a result of rendering those services on Sunday, may be charged."
Regarding the 15 percent surcharge, the second bill states, "Inasmuch as a fee is already charged on the original sale of graves, crypt, and niches, the additional fee upon transfer of a grave, crypt, or niche would appear to be unnecessarily burdensome, especially when the transfer may occur at the time of need, and create an additional financial hardship on the bereaved."
Welshons said that part of the problem is that people do not understand the fee’s application. Although the charge was instituted in 1971, it was not uniformly enforced until ‘004.
"It goes beyond just eliminating this recent charge," she said. "There seems to be an misunderstanding that it’s a duplicate charge. But if at some point there was a contribution to the M&P [maintenance and preservation]fund, it’s only the difference."
Before the law passed in 1971, cemeteries were not required to have maintenance and preservation funds. The rabbis have no objection to an initial 15 percent contribution to the preservation funds, Engelmayer said. The problem is an additional 15 percent charged when the organizations transfer the graves to their members.
Engelmayer said he understands the initial 15 percent charge toward maintenance funds but it is not being applied fairly.
"We don’t want this discontinued, because we understand the importance of it," he said. "At the same time, we don’t want it to be retroactive. It should apply to new grave sales and not to grave sales already made."
The charge has been applied retroactively to help cemeteries make up for the years before they were required to have preservation funds, Welshons said.
"That’s the irony of this," said Blacksberg. "You’re trying to stay in business forever. Cemeteries can’t afford to go out of business. The most likely to survive are cemeteries that are well run and have the means to survive."