Ed Kass’s adult daughter Nina committed suicide in Michigan on New Year’s Day. Ed Kass flew in from California to bury her, and to mourn.
He knew that his daughter wanted to be buried near her grandparents, in a cemetery belonging to a nearby synagogue in Toledo, Ohio, called Congregation Etz Chayim. No one in the family was a member of the synagogue anymore, so Kass called to ask if he could bury his daughter there.
It’s a question often faced by synagogues: If burial plots are a perk of membership, what happens when a nonmember wants to be buried in the congregational cemetery? The Toledo synagogue’s response — asking for five years’ worth of back dues plus a burial fee — appears to be on the high end of what congregations usually ask. But large fees for mourning families, well above the cost of the plot, are far from unusual.
“It’s unfortunate, but the synagogue… is the owner of the cemetery,” said Stanley Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that owns and manages Jewish cemeteries in the Boston area. “If you want the privilege, they want the back dues. They view it as a fairness issue.”
Kaplan said that in Massachusetts, the back dues billed by the synagogues in return for burial rights costs are far higher than the going rate for a cemetery plot.
When he lived in Toledo in the 1980s, Kass was a member of Etz Chayim. He had, in fact, been principal of the congregation’s Sunday school. But he had since moved away. His daughter, who struggled with depression, had been jobless and penniless before she died. Kass is 70 now, newly retired and living on a fixed income.
Still, he agreed to pay the $4,000 in back dues, under what he says was an assurance from a synagogue official that the congregation would later forgive the debt on hardship grounds. Kass forked over $2,450 in burial fees and perpetual care funds, plus $500 toward the dues, and signed a document promising to pay the other $3,500. Nina was buried.
Days later, feeling burned, Kass decided to write a letter about his experience to the local Jewish paper, a newsletter put out by the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo.
“I agreed with the arrangement because I felt I had no other choice but to honor my daughter’s request,” Kass wrote. He charged that the synagogue’s actions, in forcing him to promise the payment and in the way it handled the exchange, had been improper. “They are not mentshlekh [decent],” he wrote.
Instead of publishing the letter, the local federation’s executive set up a meeting between Kass and the synagogue’s new president, Steven E. Marcus. At the meeting, Kass says, Marcus promised to relieve the debt. Marcus, a lawyer, told the Forward that he didn’t make any such promise, but rather invited Kass to send documentation to the synagogue board to prove that he was unable to pay.
Relations devolved from there. On June 16, Marcus sent Kass a letter telling him that he was barred from putting a headstone on his daughter’s grave. “Please be advised that until the balance… pursuant to the signed agreement is paid, no headstone or marker will be permitted on Nina’s grave,” Marcus wrote. “If you wish to proceed to Jewish civil court, I can contact the appropriate organizations in either Detroit and/or Cleveland to make arrangements for such. Otherwise, I would appreciate it if you would begin making your $100 per month payments as you had agreed to do.”
Kass told the Forward that he could pay the outstanding funds by dipping into his retirement account. But he’s angry. “I thought, asking somebody to pay five years of dues in order to bury somebody — it didn’t sit right with me,” Kass told the Forward.