Those involved in the business of getting New York’s Jews to their final resting place have long been aware of problems in smoothly accomplishing their goal. This week, after several years of negotiations, the Jewish Community Relations Council is poised to sign an agreement with a group of New York City-area Jewish cemetery officials that would help alleviate some of these problems.
"I think this is a terrific agreement for everybody. It’s good for the cemeteries, the community and the public at large," said Gerald Hass, president of the Jewish Cemetery Association.
"It codifies a number of issues that have been problems over the years for everybody."
One problem is called "short-graving," a term for when an undersized casket is used to fit into a cemetery plot shorter than standard size. To accommodate the smaller space, the casket is slanted and the corpse repositioned from a prone state.
A consequence of cost-saving measures, short-graving has been practiced without the knowledge of family members and the public.
The procedure is not illegal, but is a violation of the Jewish concept of kovod mase (Hebrew for "respect for the dead") say Jewish community officials.
Jewish mourners have also encountered problems with trying to bury their dead on a legal holiday, partly due to the failure to set up standard guidelines and a communication system for such events. Religious law requires burial as soon as possible.
The tentative deal also addresses other cemetery issues, such as ensuring that families are provided sufficient soil at the gravesite, higher fees for holiday burials and posting signs for the public to report complaints to the proper regulatory agency, the state Division of Cemeteries.
"That’s really what this is all about, consumer information," said Rabbi Elchanon Zohn, the JCRC’s Jewish funeral expert who helped negotiate the pact. "It accomplishes a lot on several issues."
The tentative deal, which participants planned to sign Friday, includes as many as 11 Jewish cemeteries in the New York area. It is hoped that another three will join.
The proposed agreement is self-regulated, said JCRC executive director Michael Miller. The organization credited cemetery officials for working with them to resolve these long-term issues. Miller said participants agreed not to seek a legislative or government solution at this point because of potential complications of entangling the state in issues that involve regulating specific religious traditions.
The proposed pact will address the short-graving issue by requiring family notification and giving consumers the option to refuse it.
Brooklyn Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, a critic of cemetery abuses, said he has been aware of the practice for nearly 25 years, calling it outrageous.
"The public knows nothing about it," he added.
Experts familiar with the practice told The Jewish Week that short-graving occurs when concrete foundations have been pre-poured at plots to save money.
Pre-pouring also strengthens the plot foundations.But the concrete cuts the grave size by several inches, forcing the use of undersized caskets: 72 inches rather than the standard 75 to 84 inches.
A 72-inch casket loses even more area inside the box because of the wood’s thickness: perhaps five or six inches. Bodies are then repositioned.
Before the new proposed agreement, when the cemetery learned a plot was undersized, it informed the funeral director, who then would provide a smaller casket without informing the family.
There are thousands of such cases, and potentially thousands more waiting to occur at Jewish cemeteries where pre-poured concrete plots are standard practice. Some cite the fact that older cemeteries were designed when people were shorter. The new JCRC agreement would require cemeteries to notify families up front about short-graving when plots are purchased.
In cases in which short-grave plots have already been purchased, the agreement will give families the option of breaking the foundation at the cemetery’s expense to enlarge the gravesite. It also bans pouring concrete into the graves after the coffin is buried, which has resulted in damaged caskets.
The proposed agreement also:
# Establishes uniform rules and a holiday burial hot line to deal with costly holiday burials. The guideline will ensure that families forced to bury on a holiday share the overtime costs, which can add up to $2,500 to a bill.
# Requires the cemetery to post signs conspicuously in its lobby that the business is regulated by the state Division of Cemeteries, where complaints can be reported.
# Requires a rabbi, family member or official of the burial society to verify that the deceased was Jewish and can be buried in a Jewish cemetery.