Richard Fishman’s office gets dozens of frantic phone calls every day, most of them from Jews.
As the chief regulator of New York State’s not-for-profit cemeteries, Jewish graves aren’t Fishman’s only problem. But they up take a lot of his time.
When you call the cemetery about the grave your uncle said was reserved for your mother, and the cemetery tells you it doesn’t have the records from the burial society that owns your mother’s grave, and the burial society itself has disappeared, you call Fishman.
There’s nothing he can do.
“They’re out of luck, and it’s tough to tell people that,” said Fishman, who has led the New York State Department of State’s Division of Cemeteries since 1995. “You hear all the stories and the family angst…. That’s an everyday thing.”
Fishman, 67, is retiring at the end of August. In his decades in office, he’s reined in some of the worst excesses of the New York cemetery industry. He’s kicked bad cemetery operators out of New York State, busted illegal grave sellers, and kept large, pro-profit death care corporations out of New York graveyards.
The problem he hasn’t been able to fix, however, is the one that’s mucking up the entire business of Jewish death in New York: Thousands of largely defunct, entirely unregulated burial societies still own most of the unused plots in New York’s Jewish cemeteries. Fishman thinks the state legislature should give the office he’s leaving power to get the societies under control.
It’s not his problem for much longer, but Fishman is in deep. “We’re doing an important thing,” he said. “Once you get into this, it’s kind of hard to walk away.”
Cemetery management is a tough game. The goal is to make enough money on grave sales and burial fees to keep the grass mowed for all eternity. But mowing is expensive, as is tree pruning and backhoe maintenance. And eternity is a long time.
Under Jewish religious law, meanwhile, Jewish mourners need their dead buried days or hours after they die, federal holiday or not. That opens the door to potential exploitation — and to nearly unavoidable conflict.
In New Jersey, the relationship between Jewish cemeteries and the Jewish community is so bad that legislators are pursuing new laws to rein in the cemeteries.
In New York, the cemeteries and the Jewish community pretty much get along. “I can tell you, the differences are blatant and glaring and very, very tangible,” said Rabbi Elchonon Zohn of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, the New York Jewish community’s top burial negotiator. “I believe it’s due in great part to Fishman.”
Richard Fishman looks more like an enforcer than a peacemaker. He’s got the outer-borough drawl and sartorial informality of a TV detective — an Andy Sipowicz on the graveyard beat.
Fishman enjoys busting the bad guys. You can hear it over the phone when he gets to talking about a new investigation. In another line of work, he might have been the kind of guy who cracks skulls. As is, one gets the sense that he isn’t so worried about chain of command.
Sitting in his corner office on a dreary floor full of civil servants in Downtown Manhattan, Fishman told the Forward that he’d worn a suit that day especially for our photographer. Under his jacket he wore short sleeves.
Fishman comes from Fresno, Calif. A Jewish kid with family in New York, he bet on the Yankees and worked in the Catskills during the summer. He moved east in the late 1970s, taking jobs in city government in New York. Fishman worked in the mayor’s office under Ed Koch, then in the Sanitation Department, then in the city’s Department of Investigations and finally back in the mayor’s office under Rudolph Giuliani. He had never heard of the Division of Cemeteries when he got a call about a vacancy at its head.
“I don’t think anybody ever heard of this place,” Fishman said.
An office within the New York State Department of State, the Division of Cemeteries is tasked with regulating the 1,800 not-for-profit cemeteries in New York. The office answers to the state’s cemetery board, which is made up of high-ranking state officials.
Before Fishman, the division was on the brink of being dissolved. Cemetery officials were backing a law that would have closed it down. Jewish communal officials weren’t happy, either.
“I had many meetings with Richard’s predecessor,” Zohn said. “There was a lot of talk, but no action.”
When Fishman was hired, New York’s cemeteries were under siege. The death care conglomerates that had consolidated funeral homes and cemeteries nationwide were beginning to move into New York, exploiting a loophole that allowed them to get past the state law banning for-profit cemeteries.
That seemed like a problem to Fishman. Weren’t cemeteries supposed to be saving up to keep the grass cut forever? How could a big public corporation be trusted do that while turning a profit?
In 1997, Fishman’s office closed the loophole. The Loewen Group, one of the biggest death care companies, sued the cemetery board. The cemetery board won. And Loewen went bankrupt soon after.
The same loophole is still exploited in New Jersey, where a firm that bought up many of Loewen’s cemeteries continues to operate a New Jersey Jewish cemetery, charging it millions in management fees.
Other aggressive regulatory measures followed. In 2000, Fishman and the state attorney general kicked five officials at three Jewish cemeteries in Queens out of the state cemetery business. The men were accused of receiving excessively high salaries and of other allegedly exploitative practices. In return for the state not pursuing charges, the men effectively agreed to get out of town.
Three of the men are currently involved in operating a New Jersey Jewish cemetery. One of them, Herbert B. Klapper, earned a base salary of $729,000 from that cemetery in 2009.
Fishman has staff in New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Utica and Buffalo. His accountants and investigators monitor cemeteries around the state. Many of them have been with the division for longer than Fishman himself.
If investigations are the content of the job, the context is tough to ignore: Fishman and his staff talk about dying all day long. Early in his tenure, he asked the division’s longtime assistant director whether the death thing ever bugged him. “I said, ‘Mike, you know what we’re really dealing with here,” Fishman recalled. “’Doesn’t it get to you?’”
“Richie, you’re dealing with the law, you’re dealing with regulations, you’re dealing with complaints,” the assistant director responded. “But do we all think about it? Absolutely we all think about it.”
Despite his often-aggressive approach, the state’s Jewish cemetery bosses speak warmly of Fishman.
“He played a key role in creating a culture in which the Jewish cemeteries and the Jewish community understand each other and work well together, which was not the case before Richard came on the job,” said Jerry Hass, president of Mount Hebron Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Queens, and president of the Cemetery Employer Association, which represents Jewish cemeteries throughout the state.
Fishman helped broker a deal between Jewish cemetery operators and the Jewish community in 1999 that dealt with issues such as holiday burials. Since then, he’s been a go-between who relays concerns when problems arise.
“He’s been a calming influence,” said Jay Ivler, president of Mount Lebanon Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Queens.
In February, the Forward published an investigation revealing that burial societies were illegally selling graves in New York cemeteries through classified advertisements. Fishman interceded following the publication of the story, informing the buyers of one burial society’s graves that their purchases were invalid. The burial society eventually cut a deal with the cemetery, giving its remaining graves to the cemetery in return for the cemetery agreeing to bury the people who had bought its graves through the classifieds. But the incident underlined the problem that the decaying burial society apparatus is causing for New York’s Jewish cemeteries.
The burial societies, often formed by immigrants who came to America from the same town or region in Eastern Europe, were once key institutions in immigrant Jewish New York. Now, with the death of most of those immigrants and the dispersal of their children, these societies are often controlled by a few elderly people, if they exist at all. By law, the societies can only bury members; they generally can’t sell graves at market rates. If there are no members left, their only option is to liquidate their assets. But there’s no regulator around to ensure that they do, or to make sure that people who are owed burials by these societies can still be buried.
The only person paying attention to the societies has been Fishman, according to Hass. “He and his office are the only people who know what that’s about,” Hass said.
Yet Fishman’s office has no real authority, so the calls he fields every day from Jews having problems navigating the burial societies often end with him explaining why he can’t help.
“I wanted to regulate the societies,” Fishman said. They should “require membership lists and meetings, so we know these people are real. And if they’re not real, then they need to be liquidated.”
Those he’s leaving behind in the Jewish cemetery business, meanwhile, just hope that Fishman’s successor is similar to him.
“I think he has set a very powerful example of how regulatory government can work for the benefit of the state and the people,” Zohn said.
Fishman’s retirement is effective at the end of August. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said that the Department of State was searching for a replacement.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.