Legislators, Rabbis Object to High Price of Jewish Sunday Burials in N.J.

Jewish religious traditions ban Saturday funerals and mandate a speedy burial for the deceased — which makes Sunday a busy day at Jewish cemeteries. But for New Jersey residents whose loved ones die late in the week, a Sunday burial can bring hefty additional surcharges, found reporter Josh Nathan-Kazis for The Jewish Daily Forward. Because contracts for union cemetery workers stipulate higher salaries on Sunday, burials on that day come with an added fee.

The Forward surveyed a dozen cemeteries in New Jersey and found base Sunday surcharges of up to $500, plus afternoon overtime rates of $150 to $750 per hour. In New York, where Jewish cemeteries can’t add charges for Sunday morning burials, afternoon surcharges are generally less than half of what they are in New Jersey, The Forward reported.

The North Jersey Board of Rabbis has pushed for cemetery reforms in the state, and State Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill to reduce Sunday burial fees. The state’s cemeteries are lobbying against the legislation, arguing that high labor costs make the fees necessary.

Loretta Weinberg has introduced legislation in the New Jersey State Senate that would "stiffen" the state's cemetery regulations. (Photo via Jewish Daily Forward)

The Board of Rabbis wanted “to see New Jersey’s rules change so that they mirror New York’s way of regulating cemeteries,” said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, who in 2008 was president of the board and is still active in the group’s cemetery reform efforts.

One result of the board’s efforts has been the package of reforms introduced in the New Jersey State Senate by Democratic majority leader Weinberg, which would stiffen cemetery regulation in New Jersey. State law currently requires that half the members of the board that oversees the state’s cemeteries work in the cemetery industry. One bill proposed by Weinberg would change the makeup of the board to put cemetery industry representatives in the minority.

Another bill in Weinberg’s package would bar cemeteries from charging “an additional fee” for Sunday burials. The bill does allow cemeteries to pass on “actual or additional increased costs” for Sunday burials to consumers.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D) proposed an agreement between cemeteries and the Jewish community, as an alternative to legislation.

“If we can do this without the heavy hand of government, I think that we all agree that that’s the best thing to do,” Schaer said.

The agreement would have committed cemeteries to provide burials on secular holidays and to allow for evening burials, among other things. It would have committed the signatories to support legislation allowing cemeteries to sell gravestones, which is now barred under New Jersey law.

The agreement would also have created a communal grievance committee that would have investigated complaints about cemeteries. A purely voluntary body, it would have had no enforcement power.

However, talks broke down at a June 12 meeting between legislators, Jewish officials and cemetery representatives.

Amid frustration, legislators and Jewish communal representatives asked the cemetery officials to present their own proposal. The cemeteries are expected to present some sort of draft agreement in late August.

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