Jewish funeral home owners describe how the business of death has evolved over the years.
When Cheryl Aboloff of Evesham, N.J., lost her father, Alvin Brown, in January 2009, the family had not done any preplanning for his funeral or final resting place — not even during the last months of failing health that led to his passing at age 78.
Aboloff’s mom, Leah, wanted to remain local and so the family turned to their synagogue, Adath Emanu-El in nearby Mount Laurel. Its administrator mentioned that the congregation had a section reserved in Crescent Memorial Park in Pennsauken.
Aboloff’s husband, Steve, knew the owner of Mount Laurel Home for Funerals and suggested they try it. Although it’s nondenominational, it impressed Aboloff and her mother as modern, bright — and haimisch. The owner was attentive to her father’s veteran status, providing a flag to drape the coffin. “It was low-stress, sympathetic and comforting,” Aboloff said.
As the first anniversary of Alvin Brown’s death approached, Aboloff helped her mother pick out a marker at Wertheimer/Liberty Monuments in Southampton, Pa. “We shopped at three places, but were comfortable there because they were Jewish and knew more than the others we visited,” Aboloff said.
“Comfort” is perhaps the key word in describing what grief-stricken family members need when working out the details of burying their loved ones. For local companies involved in the business of death, the near-constant evolution of their clients’ needs and demands to not just lay loved ones to rest but to do so in a way that satisfies their own particular traditions and interpretation of Judaism presents unique challenges.
The Philadelphia Way
At Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks Inc., a Philadelphia funeral home with roots dating back to 1877, vice presidents Randi Goldstein Casey and Brett Schwartz agreed that their roles — and profession — are ever-changing.
“Older directors had it down to a science. They would tell a family what casket to take, and people were in and out very quickly,” said Schwartz, the great-great-grandson of Morris Rosenberg, founder of Morris Rosenberg Furnishing Undertakers in 1877. Rosenberg’s merged with Raphael-Sacks in 1958, and the merger with Goldsteins’ was completed in 1992. Today, the company directs 1,500 to 1,600 funerals annually at its locations in North Philadelphia and Southampton, Pa.
Today, Schwartz said, “people want more guidance and education from us.” Casey, one of the funeral home’s grief counselors, said that while many people today are more educated and come in knowing what they may want, others are so distraught that funeral directors really have to work with them. Indeed, one of the first rooms at Goldsteins’ North Philadelphia location is the Grief Room, filled with books, toys and lots of tissues.
At Joseph Levine & Sons, founded in 1883 and still family-owned with four chapels in Philadelphia and its suburbs, general partner Brian Levine isn’t the only funeral director with a grief counseling certification. Levine, who supervises the Broomall location, said the funeral home has a salaried social worker/certified grief counselor, Pam Weinstein, who works one-on-one and in family group sessions. “It’s a full-time job for us and for her. In the future, there will be more grief counseling because people want that,” he said.
From Unadorned to Elaborate
Today’s Jewish funerals not only take longer, but services and burials often take more time to plan and schedule — flying against Jewish tradition of burying within 24 hours. “It’s a more transient society and people want to know if they can wait until everyone can get here. We tell them, ‘Of course you can,’ ” Casey said. “We can also do webcasting, where families dispense an email link so people who can’t get here can watch the service.”
Just as there are multiple ways to choreograph a funeral — which can cost up to $10,000 on average at local funeral homes, not including cemetery and clergy — there is no end of choices when it comes to caskets. Goldsteins’ showroom has about 40 caskets on display — metal ones, nontraditional wooden ones with metal hardware and all-wood traditional kosher ones — “ ‘kosher caskets’ is a slang term for a casket that meets the criteria for a traditional Jewish burial by being all wood and no metal,” Schwartz explains. Prices range from $1,295 for a traditional pine box to $22,000 for a double-walled bronze casket with two lids. The average price for a wood or metal casket range from $4,000 to $6,000.
At Levine’s, simple wood caskets are trending these days, tying in with Jewish tradition and greener, more environmentally friendly burials that hew to the original “dust to dust” sentiment first expressed in Genesis, according to Brian Levine. “It’s a minuscule trend that may become more relevant as baby boomers age,” he said.
Jewish funeral homes today also find themselves serving more than the Jewish population. “We are primarily a Jewish funeral home, but we will and do serve people of all faiths,” Schwartz said. “If people want us to do things like embalming, we do. We handle funerals for all races and religions because we have to — and want to.” This policy of ecumenical inclusion seems to be an industry standard, as variations on Schwartz’s response were echoed by other sources interviewed for this article. This includes accommodating non-Jewish spouses from interfaith marriages, as Brian Levine made clear by emphasizing that his funeral home is equipped to fill the needs of interfaith families.
Making Arrangements in Advance
Another growing phenomenon is prearranging funerals. The practice of making all of the financial arrangements in advance of one’s own demise has become an increasingly accepted one, to the point that prearranged funerals now comprise roughly 45 percent of Goldsteins’ business. “People my parents’ age think of it almost as a gift. They think, ‘I don’t want my children to go through the burden of having to sit and make the arrangements, and have to pay for it,’ ” Casey said.
Because Levine & Sons owns Haym Salomon Memorial Park in Frazer — Pennsylvania, unlike New Jersey, allows funeral homes to own cemeteries — the company can save clients time by offering one-stop shopping. Levine & Sons will work with people who choose to pay upfront in a lump sum or installments, but also provides guidance for younger folks who want to do as much prearranging as they without spending in advance. “One aspect of prearranging is you get your wishes known and kept on file,” Levine said. “The options are different for everybody and people who are young may feel their money is better invested elsewhere.”
Larry Chelder of Elkins Park hasn’t preplanned funeral arrangements for himself and wife, Fran, but he intends to. When Fran’s mother, Sonia Kranzel, died at 103, she was buried with no fuss at Mount Sharon Cemetery in Springfield, where she had a plot purchased from her burial society. His wife’s late uncle had preplanned funeral arrangements made with Bennett Goldstein, one of the supervisor-directors at the family-run funeral home. That uncle and his wife are now buried at Montefiore Cemetery in Jenkintown, and the Chelders have purchased plots next to them.
At 78, the retired general merchandise and hardware wholesaler, who serves as a lay leader at synagogue services, funerals and unveilings, has a final resting place, but has yet to make his own prefuneral arrangements. Chelder — father of three, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of one — said it’s on his to-do list once he and his wife have the necessary funds. “We should and will do funeral arrangements if we can,” he said. “We haven’t yet for economic reasons, but if we can it’s best for everyone.”
The Jersey Way
Across the Delaware River in Cherry Hill, N.J., it’s another family affair at Platt Memorial Chapels. Bernard Platt, a former township mayor who founded the company 37 years ago with his wife, Judy, now runs the business with three of his four children.
Raised in Pennsylvania, Platt wanted to be a veterinarian but could not afford college. Two Quaker “lady friends” of his mother told Platt he would make a “fine mortician,” and ultimately helped him get an apprenticeship. He worked at a Philadelphia funeral home even after moving to Cherry Hill in 1966, then established his own memorial chapel in 1977. To this day, he said, he doesn’t know what qualities stood out that made those Quaker ladies peg him as a funeral director.
Platt is proud of how his funeral home strives to educate the public through a program that brings in confirmation students and adult classes for tours of everything from the prep room to the showroom to the chapel. He and his staff also go out to speak in front of groups.
In New Jersey, Platt said, prearranging money goes directly into an escrow account as a prepaid trust, earning interest until a person passes away. Only then is the money used, with the interest helping to offset the funeral home’s future costs. Cash disbursements, for such things as death notices and certificates, are not guaranteed in the prearranging process.
“Moreover, if you move away and you decide you don’t want to be buried in New Jersey, by law we are required to return the money plus interest earned. That is unique to this state,” Platt said. “And we can’t speculate with this money. All the money that is invested must go into secured investment funds and is guaranteed like a bank.”
At Jenkintown’s Montefiore Cemetery, a family-owned and -operated Jewish final resting place established in 1910 and easily identified by its castle-like, main building, 75 acres of burial ground includes sections for monuments and markers, as well as several mausoleums and a columbarium reserved for cremains.
Montefiore marketing director Bill Loy has his own plot ready near his parents’ graves. Herbert and Greta Loy, Holocaust survivors who met in Shanghai, immigrated to Philadelphia via San Francisco after the war and almost immediately joined a burial society called Chevra Tikvah Kadisha, their son recalled. Their yearly bill was $10.
The societies ensured there would be some ease in transitioning from life to death, allowing those left behind to mourn without having to take care of burial details. Now, cemeteries are stepping in. About 90 percent of Montefiore’s business is prearranging, which helps economically by locking in prices, Loy said. “People think, ‘I have plenty of time.’ But there’s never enough time, and there’s never a right time. There’s just time,” said Samantha Bromley, Montefiore’s general manager.
Jack Belitsky, 74, of Philadelphia, has dozens of relatives buried at Montefiore. The retired educator, who was a reading specialist in the Neshaminy school district and a teacher at both Temple Sholom in Northeast Philadelphia and Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, can see his final resting place when he visits loved ones. “My family has a long history at Montefiore going back to 1923,” the bachelor said. “My great-grandparents are buried there along with about 50 other family members.”
Ten years ago, Belitsky made arrangements for himself and his sister and brother-in-law, Bernice and Michael Brown. “We are all basically in the same section. You will see all my family there,” he said. “When the time comes, it’s very emotional and difficult and now no one has to be bothered with finding a plot.”
Because Pennsylvania allows it, Montefiore offers a monument and marker service for one-stop shopping. Those who preplan have the prices locked in, and can pay out their fees at no interest. The markers start at $600, while a black pearl marble double monument could go as high as $15,000. Private mausoleums cost more.
At Montefiore, graves can cost as little as $1,500 — there are some areas reserved for indigents whose costs are entirely covered by philanthropists’ donations — and increase to as much as $8,000 for a grave surrounded by a lot of open space. The average cost is about $3,000 to $3,500, Loy said.
By state law, Pennsylvania cemeteries are required to offer perpetual care, but people also have the option of paying for care annually. Even if they forget to pay a bill, the grass is cut and any safety problems are remedied.
The cemetery has various sections, including an Orthodox area, and plenty of room for expansion. “We try to keep families together,” Bromley said. “It can sometimes be difficult, but this cemetery is built around heritage, and family is what’s most important.”
Loy is a case in point. He purchased six plots — for himself, his wife and two each for both his children — one row over from his parents, who are buried in the last row of their society’s section.
A Link to the Past
Jon Shreter of Moorestown, N.J., would agree that prearranging is a key component of a problem-free final transition — in theory. Shreter, president of the board of trustees for Crescent Memorial Park, an independent, not-for-profit entity established in 1933 in Pennsauken under the auspices of the local Jewish community, hasn’t gotten around to preplanning his final resting place.
Although he hasn’t decided on anything yet, it could be at Crescent — where each owner of a burial plot is a member of the cemetery association — perhaps in the section reserved for members of Temple Sinai, the Conservative synagogue in Cinnaminson, the Burlington County town of his childhood.
About one-third of the 35 acres at the not-for-profit, volunteer-governed cemetery — a rarity in today’s corporate, for-profit cemetery landscape — have been developed, with areas reserved for markers and monuments, a mausoleum and columbarium, and sections belonging to six South Jersey synagogues, with more planned.
Shreter, executive director of a health-care management association, said the cemetery began for the benefit of the Camden community, which was heavily Jewish in the 1930s. “We’re the repository for the history of all the people here,” he said. “If you want to get a sense of the South Jersey Jewish community and its leaders, this is where you go.”
Shreter’s father, Morris, was a Czechoslovakian war refugee who arrived in America in the early 1950s; his mother, Elaine, came from England. His dad had a business in Camden making orthotics and prosthetics, but the family settled in Cinnaminson and became immersed in life at Temple Sinai.
“Their synagogue was their family, and now they’re buried among their synagogue family,” Shreter said. “When I walk around the Sinai section, I see all the people I knew growing up, including four or five of my parents’ closest friends.”
Shreter said Crescent’s job is to make the process of burial as comfortable as possible. “A lot of people have individual wishes,” he said. “We balance those with the fact that it is a community here, and there must be respect and dignity for the environment as a place of remembrance.”
Preparing for the Future
Synagogue sections hold flat markers, while monuments in hues of gray, red and black populate the landscape as changing times and requests are honored. As at Montefiore, increasing numbers of stones bear Eastern European and Russian names and Cyrillic lettering — a reflection of the region’s influx of Russian immigrants over the past few decades. Some of the areas marked for future development will remain wooded in answer to demand, Shreter noted. “People are seeking a park-like setting, but we also have people who like to have sidewalks,” he said. Besides being kept up by groundskeepers, graves are tended by synagogue youth groups and a local Boy Scout troop that places American flags on veterans’ graves before national holidays.
While synagogues set their own prices for the plots in their sections, other plots start at about $1,000 and go up depending on size and location, Shreter said. Perpetual maintenance is included. There are anywhere from 130 to 150 burials at Crescent annually, with the mausoleum and columbarium gaining popularity. Ashes may also be buried in the grave of a loved one, or in a companion grave.
Despite his own procrastination, Shreter said the cemetery encourages prearranging. “It’s nice to see people come to buy plots for themselves and their family,” he said. “They’re really doing a mitzvah. It’s much better to come when you’re calm and collected and in a better place emotionally.”
Shreter believes the biggest challenge for his community burial ground is to operate efficiently. “We have a fiscal responsibility to make sure we take care of things in perpetuity,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure this place is here for the next several hundred years and more — and make it relevant to the community’s needs.”
Barbara Rothschild is a longtime local journalist. This is her first contribution to Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.