When David Waxler attempted to lay his mother, Edna, in her eternal resting place at Shalom Memorial Park in Huntingdon Valley last June, he couldn’t — because there was an unidentified body in her plot.
Waxler is now suing the corporation that runs the cemetery, Houston-based Service Corporation International (SCI).
The morning of the funeral, which was scheduled for two days after her death, Waxler received a call from Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks, which said when they opened the grave, there was already a casket in it.
“I just went berserk,” he recalled. “I said, ‘How can that possibly be? These were plots we’ve had for a long time.’”
His father, George, passed in 2014 and he’s buried in his designated plot, where his mother was supposed to be next to him.
Goldsteins’ offered to go through with the ceremony, but then return his mother to the funeral home until the grave was sorted out.
“I was very upset because in the Jewish tradition, the person is supposed to be in the ground as soon as possible,” he said.
A few days after the funeral, the cemetery gave Waxler some options: It could remove his father’s casket and put the couple in another plot next to each other, and give Waxler and his sister two free plots, or put his mother in a mausoleum until the plot was figured out.
Although they did not know who was in her plot, they needed a court order to remove the body, which took more than a month.
“It’s totally against Jewish tradition, once the person is buried to take them out of the grave. And these are the plots that they purchased wanting to be their eternal resting place,” he said. “And it is my understanding that to put someone
in a mausoleum, they have to be embalmed, which is also against the Jewish tradition.”
The family held a second funeral for Edna’s burial at the end of July. She was buried in the original plot after removing the casket that was there. The other body was reburied elsewhere on the grounds.
This is not the first time an incident like this has happened at Shalom Memorial Park.
The Jewish Exponent reported in 2014 that Maya Devinskaya sued SCI after her daughter was buried in a plot at Shalom Memorial Park that overlapped someone else’s.
SCI operates 2,000 cemeteries and funeral homes across the country, including 10 in Philadelphia. It earns $3 billion each year, as reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has paid out several eight-figure settlements.
Eden Memorial Park in Los Angeles agreed to an $80.5 million settlement in 2014, according to USA Today, “that claimed it dumped human remains from hundreds of graves.”
SCI settled a similar lawsuit for $100 million in Florida in 2003, alleging that Menorah Gardens cemeteries “buried people in the wrong places, broke open vaults to squeeze in other remains and … tossed bones into the woods.”
Reports and lawsuits against SCI hasn’t hindered the company’s growth. It has acquired more and more cemeteries and businesses across the country, becoming the leading corporation in the funeral industry.
Bryan Lentz, Waxler’s attorney with Bochetto & Lentz, P.C., said the case is scheduled to go to trial in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. His client is seeking damages of more than $50,000.
“The objective is to remedy what the horrible series of events that happened to David and his sister in connection with their mother’s funeral,” he said.
SCI wrote in a statement to the Exponent: “Shalom Memorial Park is committed to honoring its commitments with families. Because these matters are the subject of litigation, we cannot disclose further details.”
Shalom Memorial Park could not be reached for comment.
Harley Felstein, founder and president of Jewish R.E.A.C.H., a nonprofit that raises awareness about the importance of cemeteries in the life-cycle process, said even though many states have “cemetery oversight,” there are a lot of issues not being addressed.
“The issue(s) facing cemetery managers, whether it is a not-for-profit or corporation operation, are at a different magnitude within the corporate operation,” he wrote. “The leadership needs to discuss and implement the needed changes for the cemeteries. The size of [a] cemetery does [not] really give any individual full protection. There needs to be full understanding generated by community cemetery oversight.”
A year later, Waxler still feels distressed.
Every time he passes a cemetery, memories of what happened to his mother post-mortem creep up.
He visits his parents’ graves regularly, as well as his mother-in-law, who passed two months after this ordeal.
They were all a close-knit family, spending breakfast to-
gether every Saturday morning at Tiffany Diner.
The day before his mother-in-law’s funeral, he received another call saying the casket would not fit in the grave — the same type of casket he bought for his mother.
“They said the ground had shifted. … What they did was move somebody next to them over somewhere, so it wouldn’t fit,” he alleged.
He bought another casket without handles that would fit, and one side of the lining had to be removed.
This past February, he visited South Florida and drove by a cemetery that read “Dignity” — the brand name SCI goes by.
“It’s [weighed] on my mind and I don’t think it’ll ever go away,” he said, “about why I couldn’t get my mother into her resting place that she wanted to be in.”
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