A lawsuit like the one filed last week against the operators of a Jewish cemetery in Lower Moreland Township is unusual — but perhaps not surprising given that the little regulation of cemeteries that exists does not venture into the realm of overselling and overlapping gravesites.
The class-action complaint, filed in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on May 12, accuses Shalom Memorial Park of knowingly overselling grave plots, resulting in overlapping graves, and selling the same plots to different parties.
The suit stems from what happened to Maya Devinskaya, a 73-year-old Philadelphia widow and Russian native, who buried her daughter, Ella Kukava, at Shalom Memorial last June. Last month, she learned that another grave, that of Emil Khrizman, overlaps her daughter’s.
“It all boils down to you have only so much land, and you have to keep track of how many people you are burying,” said attorney Joseph Osefchen. His firm, DeNittis Osefchen in Evesham, N.J., along with Bochetto & Lentz of Philadelphia, is representing the plaintiffs. “It’s pretty horrible and it’s pretty sad. We’ve been contacted by a lot of people, and some are pretty sure they have family members in graves that are overlapping and touching.”
In the complaint, Devinskaya recounts how she learned nearly a year after burying her daughter that the cemetery had previously sold a portion of that same plot to another family. The overlap was discovered when gravestone dealer Yakov Natanzon went to the cemetery to lay a stone for Khrizman, who died about a month prior to Kukava, only to find flowers and a photo of Devinskaya’s daughter on the spot.
Osefchen said Shalom Memorial Park has asked Devinskaya for permission to disinter her daughter’s body and rebury it elsewhere, which is heavily frowned upon in Jewish law.
“She has refused to do it so far. She is very upset,” Osefchen said.
Also named as defendants in the suit are Service Corporations International, Inc., SCI Pennsylvania Funeral Services, Inc., and Forest Hills Cemetery Corp., all operating as Shalom Memorial.
A spokeswoman for the Houston-based SCI, which bills itself as North America’s largest single provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services, would not comment, saying it is against company policy to speak about pending litigation.
The lawsuit cites other class action suits against SCI and Jewish cemeteries it owns in Florida and California based on the same types of practices. In those cases, SCI paid more than $65 million in Florida and $80 million in California to settle the suits. The current suit also cites an incident involving an SCI-owned Jewish funeral home in Massachusetts that buried a woman in the wrong plot and disinterred the body without the family’s permission — conduct that resulted in “the largest fine in the history of Massachusetts.”
The lawsuit claims that former SCI employees say Shalom Memorial has a longstanding practice of taking note of which graves are seldom visited in order to bury multiple people in overlapping sites.
Osefchen said he expects the lawsuit to be settled before it reaches trial, as happens in 98 percent of cases.
“There could be more lawsuits, cemetery by cemetery,” as word of this one gets around and other families come forward, he said.
In addition to class-action status, the complaint seeks an order for the cemetery to stop selling more graves than it can hold, a court-administered audit of the current conditions there and unspecified financial damages.
Several funeral directors in the region were unwilling to comment on what is clearly a touchy subject.
Adam Levine, one of the sons in Joseph Levine and Sons, was reluctant to comment but said it is really at the discretion of the cemetery to bury the dead responsibly. Levine and Sons, which has facilities in Philadelphia and the suburbs, has no jurisdiction over most of the cemeteries it works with on an everyday basis, including Shalom Memorial, he said.
But at Haym Solomon Memorial Park in Frazer, which Levine and Sons has owned since 1986, the company keeps close watch on what happens, Levine said.
“My father, brothers and I go to Haym Solomon on a regular basis, making sure everything is where it should be — to the inch as it is proscribed what every grave and grave liner needs,” Levine said.
For his undertaker family, he emphasized, the dignity of the deceased and the needs of the bereaved family are of utmost importance.
In New Jersey, where funeral homes by law cannot own cemeteries, Harry Platt of Platt Memorial Chapels in Cherry Hill said he’s never seen the situation described in the lawsuit.
“Our funeral home has worked with Shalom Memorial for 38 years, and there’s never been an issue there, or anywhere,” Platt said. “We’ve never been told there’s no room for a grave to go there. But we can’t control what happens on the cemetery grounds, and it’s possible that at some point, eventually, there’s going to be a problem.”
Neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey regulates this aspect of cemetery protocol. New Jersey’s Division of Consumer Affairs has a cemetery board whose regulations do not extend to religious burial grounds. In Pennsylvania, most cemeteries are likewise exempt from state licensing requirements — and those requirements have little or nothing to do with cemetery operations.
Levine said families burying their loved ones have to put their trust in the cemetery they choose.
Osefchen and his partner, Stephen DeNittis, believe that’s what this suit is all about.
“This case does not involve a movie theatre or a commercial airliner, where they try to boost profits by squeezing people closer and closer together,” DeNittis said in a release on the firm’s website. “The bodies of deceased loved ones deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. The goal of this lawsuit is to try to restore dignity and respect to these grieving families and to make sure that this kind of thing never happens again.”