In an effort to provide New York Jews with access to more affordable traditional Jewish funerals, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) has signed an agreement with Parkside Memorial Chapels to provide a package deal that could save its members up to $1,000 on the cost of a funeral.
The agreement comes 18 months after state and city officials warned of rising Jewish funeral costs in the city because of a monopoly on Jewish funeral homes they charged was being pursued by a Houston-based international funeral services conglomerate.
OU officials said they reached a deal with Parkside several months ago to create a fixed price of $2,795 for funerals including a chapel service and $2,495 with only a graveside service.
The offer is not only available to OU members but to any Jew seeking a traditional funeral, according to both parties.
The price includes a pine box coffin, transportation of the casket to the cemetery, and strict adherence to Orthodox Jewish ritual, including transfer of the body by Sabbath-observant volunteers, and ritual purification, officials said.
The rituals will be supervised by Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Chevra Kadisha of Flatbush, said Rabbi Moshe Krupka, the OU’s director of synagogue services.
Rabbi Krupka said the agreement is the result of discussions last year within the OU after former city Consumer Affairs Department Commissioner Jules Polonetsky declared that costs of Jewish funerals were skyrocketing because of the growing influence of Service Corporation International (SCI).
"We felt that the pricing and level of service needed a lot of improvement," Rabbi Krupka said. "We became interested in creating a package with a set price," so bereaved clients would not need to negotiate prices during their time of grief.
Discussions with Parkside Memorial, a Jewish funeral business, began about seven months ago, said Parkside CEO Edward Goldstein.
While his firm has had longstanding package deals with Jewish organizations, for instance the Jewish Workman’s Circle and National Council of Young Israel, Goldstein says the agreement with the OU represents the largest yet.
"We service about 600 different organizations, [but] OU is the largest organization we’ve ever serviced," he said.
An OU spokeswoman said the organization has about 250 member synagogues in the New York metropolitan area.
Parkside operates chapels in Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Long Island and Florida.
Parkside’s origins date back to the early 1900s, when Goldstein’s father began the business. It was when Jewish immigrants were streaming into the Lower East Side, where the family established its first chapel. Parkside Chapels is currently owned and operated by Goldstein, and related families.
Called the OU Levaya Program, the plan will result in nearly $1,000 in savings from a similar non-OU basic funeral, he said.
"We’re giving the OU members something, and in turn the OU will be giving us a certain amount of funerals a year," Goldstein said.
The OU program will also handle funerals where the deceased is buried in Israel.
"The OU has purchased a large tract of land in Israel and they make graves available to anyone who wants burial in Israel," Goldstein said. Parkside will provide the service for the same $2,795; however the cost of the plane and other expenses are charged to the customer, including the rabbi’s fees.
Rabbi Krupka said that while the OU program is targeted for OU members, it is available to any Jew requesting it. "Anyone can access it. There’s no card checking at the door," he said.
Customers can also make pre-arrangements, paying for the program in advance.
A 1999 city Consumer Affairs investigation found that the average cost of a funeral at an independent Jewish funeral home outside of Manhattan was $3,182, while the average price of an SCI-owned Jewish funeral in Manhattan was $4,716.
The price at the one independently owned Jewish funeral home in Manhattan was $3,820.Rabbi Krupka speculated that the OU program could prompt funeral cost decreases at Jewish homes in the city.
SCI, which has dominated the Jewish funeral market, could not be reached for comment.
Last November, State Attorney General Elliott Spitzer reached an out-of-court settlement of an anti-trust case against SCI, calling for the company to sell four of 11 Jewish funeral homes in New York City.
Spitzer said SCI had been monopolizing the Jewish market, and the settlement would restore competition and result in lower prices.