A seldom-enforced 30-year-old rule is causing anger and confusion among cemetery officials, rabbis, and legislators, who reacted this week to news of a surcharge on plots bought by synagogues and transferred to their congregants.
Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus wrote to area congregations and funeral directors late last month informing them of the charge. According to the New Jersey Cemetery Board, all religious and membership organizations that had bought graves in bulk must make a contribution to the cemetery’s maintenance and preservation trust fund whenever a grave is either sold or assigned to a member. Although the regulation has been on the books since 1971, it has not been uniformly enforced because many did not understand it.
"It became apparent that where there had been bulk sales to religious organizations, sometimes they didn’t completely transfer the grave they were assigning them," said Judy Welshons, director of the New Jersey Cemetery Association. "And in the last revision of the statute in ‘004, that assignment became part of the normal process."
Before 1971, cemeteries were not required to have maintenance funds, but the 1971 law made it mandatory and instituted the surcharge, although it went largely unnoticed until recently. In ‘004, the board revised the statute to clarify how and when cemeteries are to collect the fees.
"Not everybody completely understood or interpreted the changes in the same way," Welshons said.
The statute specifies that cemeteries shall pay into the fund with monies from a series of fees and charges, including: 15 percent of the gross sales price on the initial sale of each grave; 15 percent of the current retail gross sale price of comparable graves on the bulk sale of graves; and 15 percent of the current gross sales price of equivalent graves on the transfer of a grave.
The word "assigned" had not been part of the original statute when referring to religious organizations that buy plots in bulk for their memberships, which led to the confusion about what constitutes a transfer. In ‘004, "assign" was added to the language.
"That was a specific change to encompass all these groups where changes would take place but not technically be called transfers," Welshons said.
For example, if a synagogue bought 100 plots 50 years ago and has ‘0 left now, 10 of which are unspoken for, it would have to pay the state-set rate of 15 percent of the plot’s current value to the cemetery when those plots are transferred.
When Cedar Park receives either a transfer deed for a recording or a call for a grave opening, it now requires that the additional trust fund payment be made. This surchange has troubled the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, because many synagogues that buy mass plots freely transfer them or sell them at reduced rates to members, often incurring a loss even without the added fee.
In response to Cedar Park’s letter, Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and a columnist for this paper, sent an emergency communiqu? to the board voicing his displeasure and calling for action.
"Suddenly we have a surcharge on anything that’s not been registered yet," he told this paper last week. "These cemeteries already have millions of dollars in those accounts. If somebody buys a grave today from the cemetery, they [the cemetery owners] can charge whatever they want to charge. But if somebody paid for property in the cemetery years ago, he or she should not be expected now to have to pay an additional amount of money for those same graves."
Engelmayer has arranged for a meeting with the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey to discuss the issue next week. He has also turned to state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37), who has sent an inquiry to the attorney general’s office.
"This is becoming something we might have to regulate," Weinberg said. "We in the state might have to pass more appropriate laws and regulations to govern this. This is supposed to be a nonprofit operation, at least when it comes to the area that started the inquiry, Cedar Park."
Weinberg has been working with the board of rabbis to get one of its members on to the cemetery board but said last Friday she had not heard back from the attorney general’s office about the recommendation.
Engelmayer argued that the law stipulates the charge is required of cemetery owners and that the statute does not pass the cost on to plot owners. He and Weinberg hope the attorney general will soon provide answers about the legality of that transfer fee, although Weinberg noted that an answer would not be forthcoming until after Thanksgiving.
"We may not have any recourse at the moment," Engelmayer said. "We are living in an area where the cost of being buried in a Jewish cemetery is absurdly prohibitive. Because we don’t have much choice, they can charge what they can get."
Herbert Klapper, president of Cedar Park, said he is just as disappointed with the ruling, though, and the New Jersey Cemetery Association has been fighting it.
"It’s a disaster," he said. "We are as totally opposed to this as anybody could be. The New Jersey cemetery statutes were rewritten. We have absolutely no control over this."
Peter Blacksberg, president of Riverside Cemetery in Saddle Brook, had a different take. His cemetery has been enforcing the surcharge without any complaints, he said. Because of the price of Riverside’s graves, the charge comes out to $95, which is lower than the average price of other area cemeteries. Blacksberg said he understood the basis for the fee and its necessity.
"This is a provision to enable cemeteries to endure," he said. "This is part of the statute, it’s not something a cemetery is doing."
The statute’s only goal is to help cemeteries, not tax communal organizations, said Welshons.
"If you look at the broader goal to be sure the cemetery can be properly maintained that’s a good thing," she said. "It’s the fiscal responsibility of every cemetery."