New York City – 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 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
“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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.