RIVER EDGE In a rare show of unity, rabbis and lay leaders across the Jewish spectrum sat down Monday night to share their growing concerns about the cemetery industry with a receptive group of state legislators.
Among those concerns, raised at the meeting at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey offices under the auspices of its Jewish Community Relations Council, are the escalating and sometimes unexpected costs of grave openings, as well as regulations that allegedly are poorly drafted, confusing, and inconsistently enforced.
These concerns were outlined in a joint statement presented to the meeting by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the New York Board of Rabbis, and the JCRC. The cemeteries issue, the statement noted, "transcends sectarian differences and even reaches beyond our communities to all people of this state" and elsewhere who own plots in New Jersey cemeteries.
According to the statement, New Jersey cemeteries, unlike those in New York State, are regulated by a board on which cemetery operators are the majority bloc. The statement’s signers proposed revising New Jersey law to "take the policing of the industry out of the hands of those who are being policed."
"New Jersey is one of only seven states to mandate that its cemeteries be not-for-profit," the statement said. New York mandates that cemeteries "’shall be conducted on a non-profit basis for the mutual benefit of plot owners therein.’ New Jersey’s law contains no such language," the statement notes, "and, in fact, does not appear to be geared toward ‘the mutual benefit of plot owners therein.’"
The difference between the two states is reflected in how each handles price increases for goods and services. New York’s cemetery board has an involved process requiring a cemetery to justify any increase. In New Jersey, a cemetery needs only to notify the board and pay a fee for the new rates to become effective.
As a result, New York burials are less expensive. In an example cited in the statement, at one area cemetery, a weekday grave opening is $1,545. (A grave opening charge is separate from the grave’s purchase price.) A Queens cemetery, however, charges $836. "Another cemetery, in an upscale area of Long Island, charges $1,047," the statement said.
There is an additional cost for opening graves on a Sunday. In the example cited, the charge is $’,317.50, almost $800 more than on weekdays.
That is not the end of the charges, however. Tacked on to these prices is a state-mandated surcharge that equals 15 percent of the retail price of a grave, which in the cited case is $”5. "So, a weekday opening actually costs $1,770 and it is $’,54′.50 on Sundays," the statement said.
Overtime charges, which are also high, add further to the cost of a burial.
"Cemeteries should be treated just as a public utility is in this state," the statement said. "It is not as though many people have a choice of where to bury their loved ones….What does a son do now when his mother has passed away? Does he not bury her next to his late father because the cemetery down the road charges $1,000 less for a burialor because a nearby Queens cemetery does?"
Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus commented that many of his elderly congregants are living on a fixed income and find it hard to bear such high costs. But, he stressed, the rabbis’ concerns are not limited to Jews.
This was echoed by Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-37), a professional funeral director, who said that Christian communities have similar concerns.
"When we started talking about [cemetery problems]," added Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, "we didn’t see this as a religious issue but as a public policy issue."
Regarding the state-mandated 15 percent surcharge, the statement acknowledges that it "has a legitimate, even noble purpose . Its goal is the creation of a fund that will keep the cemeteries functioning long after they have ceased generating income ." The problem is that the charge is assessed regardless of how long ago the grave itself was bought. The statement urged that the surcharge be attached only to newly purchased graves.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) said she would organize "a collaborative effort" with Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), Huttle, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37), and state Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Dist. 38), along with Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk (R-39), who was not at the meeting, to draft a bill by April addressing the concerns raised by rabbis and the JCRC. "I feel very strongly about using some of the wording in the New York law," she said in a subsequent interview, "that cemeteries are to operate to the benefit of the plot owners."
Also, she said, "we will be talking about doing away with the 15 percent ‘retransfers,’ putting away 50 percent of the interest generated on the principal every year" for future cemetery needs, another of the proposals suggested in the joint statement.
The statement was read to the legislators by the president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, Shammai Engelmayer, a columnist for this newspaper and rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park.