A black market in Jewish graves is hiding in plain sight on the classified pages.
Defunct Jewish burial societies have been selling cemetery plots at bargain basement prices through classified ads on Craigslist and in the print edition of the Forward — even though New York and New Jersey state laws bar these sales.
Each sale of a New York grave by a burial society on the open market could be punishable by up to six months in jail, according to the state’s top cemetery regulator, though no one has ever been prosecuted. New Jersey law carries no such penalties, but still prohibits the sales.
A Forward investigation found three people selling graves owned by old burial societies through classified ads. Among them, the sellers admitted to having unloaded somewhere around 100 graves. All three denied any wrongdoing.
The associate publisher of the Forward, Barry Surman, who does not oversee editorial operations, said that the newspaper could not screen individual burial plot ads for their legality.
No one has ever been charged with a crime for reselling burial society graves, and experts disagree over whether the sale of New York graves constitutes a misdemeanor. The black market in burial plots, however, could imperil the long-term survival of Jewish cemeteries in the two states.
The illegal sales identified by the Forward represent hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost profits for Jewish cemeteries, which by law should be selling the graves themselves. Cemeteries often struggle to stay solvent after all their plots are sold, and profits from such grave sales are meant to help ensure the cemeteries’ upkeep. Instead, since these graves are sold on the open market, the profits wind up under the control of the burial societies’ officers.
“The law prohibits that private market,” said Richard Betheil, a New York cemetery law expert who is the attorney for a handful of Jewish cemeteries. “Obviously people do pursue it anyway, because there’s money to be made.”
Only cemeteries are generally allowed to sell cemetery plots on the open market in New York and New Jersey. But in the two states’ Jewish cemeteries, mutual aid societies, called landsmanschaften, own huge inventories of empty graves. Founded at the turn of the past century by Jewish immigrants from the same town or region in Europe, the societies bought up large tracts of cemetery land, erected stone gates lined with the names of the societies’ officers and readied plots for their dues-paying members.
Today, many of those societies and congregations have disappeared, leaving behind empty, unclaimed graves.