Cemeteries Up Ante for Sunday Burials

Jews Often Pay Hefty Surcharges, Especially in New Jersey

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published July 18, 2012, issue of July 27, 2012.
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Floral Park Cemeteries, in Monmouth Junction, N.J., imposes no Sunday surcharge in the morning. The highest surcharges were at Cedar Park & Beth El Cemeteries, in Paramus, N.J., one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the state. Cedar Park charges $500 extra for a Sunday burial, plus overtime charges of $750 per hour after 2:30 p.m.

The Forward reported in June that Cedar Park & Beth El’s president earned a base salary of $729,000 in 2009, more than nearly any other Jewish communal official in the country. Sunday charges are higher in New York than in New Jersey, but they don’t appear to be out of proportion with Sunday burial fees around the country. According to Joe Levine of Joseph Levine & Sons, one of the two major Jewish funeral homes serving Philadelphia, Sunday surcharges in the state average around $250 or $300.

In the Chicago area, two Jewish cemeteries reported Sunday surcharges that made New Jersey’s fees look cheap. At Shalom Memorial Park, in Arlington Heights, Ill., Sunday burials cost $1,870 more than weekday burials. And Chicago’s Ridgelawn-Beth-El Cemeteries charges an additional $2,600 on Sundays.

Still, some cemeteries in states that allow Sunday surcharges choose not to charge extra Sunday fees. In Massachusetts, cemeteries owned by JCAM, nearly half the Jewish cemeteries in the state, don’t charge additional Sunday fees at all. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks, the largest Jewish cemetery in southern California, also doesn’t charge additional Sunday fees. Unlike most East Coast cemeteries, Mount Sinai’s workers are not unionized.

New Jersey cemetery officials defend the higher Sunday fees, saying they’re tied to high labor and other costs. Peter Blacksberg, the fourth-generation president of Riverside Cemetery, in Saddle Brook, N.J., said that labor agreements made extra Sunday fees inevitable.

“There’s a differential in running cemeteries on Sundays and has been for the last hundred years,” Blacksberg said. “The people who [work] here, they get paid more on Sundays.”

Despite the cemeteries’ objections, an effort begun in 2007 by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis has led to a series of proposals for reform of the New Jersey cemeteries.

The Board of Rabbis wanted “to see New Jersey’s rules change so that they mirror New York’s way of regulating cemeteries,” said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, who in 2008 was president of the board and is still active in the group’s cemetery reform efforts.

One result of the board’s efforts has been the package of reforms introduced in the New Jersey State Senate by Democratic majority leader Weinberg, which would stiffen cemetery regulation in New Jersey. State law currently requires that half the members of the board that oversees the state’s cemeteries work in the cemetery industry. One bill proposed by Weinberg would change the makeup of the board to put cemetery industry representatives in the minority.


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