After her husband’s death in 1988, Florence Mormor of the City Line section of Brooklyn contacted her husband’s family burial society and bought him a grave and another for herself.
After a few weeks, she called the cemetery, Mount Hebron in Flushing, Queens, and learned that the grave next to her husband’s had not been reserved for her. She then called but failed to speak with the officer of the society, Trembowler True Sisters, who had deposited her check but never acknowledged it in writing or sent her a deed for the plot.
Marmor said she let the matter slip until four years ago when, at her family’s urging, she tried again to contact the officer. This time, her letters were sent back and the officer’s phone was disconnected.
The burial society, she learned through a lawyer, was effectively defunct though not formally dissolved. Marmor was at a crossroads. Plots in Jewish cemeteries throughout the city have been filling up quickly — in fact today the shortage of plots at a number of cemeteries is beginning to approach a crisis.
Yet thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of plots lie empty, controlled by long-dormant burial societies like the Trembowler True Sisters. Marmor’s lawyer had an idea — audacious, but clever and lawful.
“My lawyer said to me, ‘Take over the society,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘OK, what do I do?’ So he got the society’s charter for me and he told me to write to Mount Hebron and tell them that I am now the president of the society. Mount Hebron said thank you, and sent me papers” to update the society’s records.
She listed herself as president, her son as vice president and daughter-in-law as treasurer.
“I’m supposed to tell them how often we meet,” Marmor, 75, said. “I put down once a year. Every year I send a paper to affirm that I am still president and that they are the officers.”
In a legal sleight of hand, Marmor had literally wrested her own resting place — right next to her husband — from a bureaucratic swamp.
Marmor’s story — though an extreme example — is happening with increasing frequency today. While most people don’t “take over the society,” many are forced to jump through frustrating, time-consuming and often-costly bureaucratic hoops to arrange for burials in plots bought many years ago by societies whose officers moved without telling the cemetery or who are deceased. Not all stories end like Marmor’s. In many instances, families search in vain for proof of burial plot deeds, sometimes shelling out thousands of dollars and enduring wrenching emotional pain only to come up empty.
“It’s sad to put people through this,” said Richard Fishman, director of the State Division of Cemeteries. “I tell every society to deed all their graves to members before they liquidate. But a lot don’t do that and unfortunately what happens is that an officer [of the society] dies and there is no one else” to sign the burial permit.
Fishman added that legislation adopted a few years ago “allows cemeteries to use discretion, and if a family can show it has a connection with a society, it may allow a burial. But if the family has nothing to show that it has a right to a grave, it’s tough.”
First Cemetery To Fill Up
The problem is becoming acute now because the 11 Jewish cemeteries in the city are beginning to run out of unsold graves and 85 to 95 percent of the graves have been sold to Jewish burial societies.
Washington Cemetery in the Midwood section of Brooklyn became the first to run out three months ago when it sold its last grave for a whopping $7,000.
“It was a question of supply and demand,” explained Dominick Tarantino, the cemetery’s chief executive officer.
“I’m the first” to run out, he said. “But I keep telling [my colleagues at other cemeteries], ‘Me today, you tomorrow.’”
Since Washington Cemetery opened in 1840 on more than 100 acres at McDonald Avenue and Bay Parkway, there have been about 200,000 burials there, Tarantino said.
“There are between 400 and 500 societies [here],” he said. “We are trying to buy some graves from functioning societies because we are close to Brighton Beach and the Russian Jewish community there is looking to purchase graves. But no one is willing to sell graves back.”
“There isn’t an answer except buying more land, and there is nothing,” Tarantino added, noting that he looked in Brooklyn and Queens and that nothing is affordable.
However, there are four or five defunct societies at Washington Cemetery that he said have as many as 350 unused graves that he would like to resell if he could.
Legislation that would permit such sales passed in the state Senate two years ago but died in the Assembly after Jewish organizations said it did not provide sufficient safeguards for the burial societies.
A memorandum justifying the legislation said that in “many cases New York’s aging cemeteries are filling to capacity and the viability of these not-for-profit organizations is in jeopardy. …
“This bill would provide cemeteries with the vehicle to search for the owners and heirs of [seemly abandoned] graves to determine whether or not they are indeed abandoned. If graves are found to be abandoned … the cemetery may reacquire, resubdivide and resell the property under certain conditions.”
Among its provisions, the bill would have required cemeteries to withhold from sale 10 percent of the graves for 25 years in the event individuals appeared with a valid claim for burial. And some proceeds of the sale would have to be used for cemetery maintenance.
But Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, director of the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad HaRabonim of Queens, said some organizations did not believe the bill went far enough to “make sure the families that had people buried there were not compromised.”
“They want to make sure that if a section is a shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant] section, it remain that way,” he said. “Some societies had men buried with men and women with women and upright monuments,” provisions that would need safeguarding.
“These are issues that we have to grapple with,” Rabbi Zohn added. “It’s doable. … Everyone is really cooperating here [to write a new bill]. What’s missing is the perfect formula.”
Concerns About Old Bill
A spokesman for the Jewish cemeteries said that although it is too late to get legislation passed this year, they would like to begin work crafting a bill for next year. But he said the groups that had concerns about the old bill, such as the Agudath Israel, have yet to suggest new wording.
Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), who sponsored last year’s bill, said he is ready to introduce new legislation “as soon as they tell us they are fine with it. We won’t push until all sides agree and are comfortable with it.”
“I’m told this is a huge issue,” he added. “People are asking to be buried at specific cemeteries and there are no plots available. We are trying to work something out for everyone.”
Just how many graves would be available for resale is unknown, but one Jewish cemetery president said there were “thousands.”
Rabbi Zohn said that when the unused graves owned by defunct societies are combined with those of societies that are “not functioning properly, there are thousands upon thousands” that could be resold.
Under the law, the plots would be resold for the original purchase price plus 4 percent simple interest. The proceeds would then be distributed among the society’s members. Fishman said graves bought in the 1930s and 1940s sold for as little as $5 or $10.
“Over the years, most members of societies have moved away and that is why there are a lot of unused graves,” he said. “The Jewish population [here] is declining and internment rates have dropped about one-third in the last few years.”
“Burials in burial society [plots] are always an adventure because if the family doesn’t have a burial permit [or a deed to a plot], you can’t do the burial,” he said. “Sometimes there is a ‘Keystone Cops’ situation trying to find the people [in the society] with a burial permit.”
In some cases, families have been known to forge the signature of the society’s officer because he could not be located in time. In other cases, distraught families have turned to the courts for help.
“We had a case last year where the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York had to go into the Supreme Court in Manhattan to sue for someone to be buried with his family,” said David Pollock, the group’s associate executive director.
He said the burial society that owned the family’s plot had been legally liquidated without issuing deeds for the society’s plots. Its files were then sent to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which preserves manuscripts, rare books and other material dealing with East European Jewry and Yiddish culture.
A search of those records at YIVO proved that the family was entitled to the grave and “we had to go to court because a judge had to order this person buried,” Pollock said.
“What’s incredibly important these days is for people — if they think they have a right to burial in a synagogue or burial society plot — to make sure they have a deed and that it is recorded with the cemetery,” Pollock said. “Once it is recorded, all the family has to do is to present the [deceased’s] driver’s license” for the burial to take place.
Because the cost of graves has risen over the years and there are fewer and fewer unsold graves available, Pollock advises people to make arrangements before there is a death in the family.
‘The System Has Broken Down’
Cheryl Pegler of Kings Park, L.I., found that out the hard way. Before her father died in 2005, she said he reminded her that the family had plots available to them at Wellwood Cemetery in Farmingdale, L.I., because his uncles had formed a burial society years earlier.
After her father’s burial, Pegler said she learned that the children of a deceased cousin of her father’s uncle were now the officers of the society. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful and Pegler said she did not think anymore about it until her daughter had a stillbirth.
Pegler said that that over the course of a week — during which an autopsy was performed on the baby — there were frantic attempts by the family, the cemetery and the funeral home, I.J. Morris, to reach the society’s two officers.
“The anger, sadness and frustration was unbearable,” Pegler said. “We got in touch with their aunt in Florida who said, ‘Tell them Aunt Naomi said to open the plot for the baby.’
Unfortunately, her name was not listed as an officer of the society. When these cousins were finally reached, they refused to open the plot. They claimed they didn’t know who we were ….”
“I.J. Morris and Wellwood’s hands were tied and they said this situation happens every day,” Pegler added. “There are old societies and empty plots left unused all over the cemeteries.”
She said the family ended up having to buy a plot for the baby – as well as four others for other family members – for $2,200 each about a block from the “family” plot.
“We were told that those were the only five plots left that were together and close to the family plot,” she said.
Fishman, the state’s director of cemeteries, said that problems with the current system cause “a lot of pain.”
“It’s a system that has broken down and the cemeteries, the state and the families are paying the price for this,” he said. “It’s a shame.”