PRESS RELEASE Cont.
"Even Gravestones Become Luxuries for Poor as Jewish Burial Groups Cut Back."
“The cemetery keeps a record, but we are not given resources to put a stone,” she said. “Sometimes, if someone grows up and they know where their parents are buried, they might be able at some point to put a marker.”
However, she said that the majority of people JFS assists don’t have any family.
But even those who have relatives don’t always get a gravestone.
Linda Bell-Spencer, project manager of Gaitz Memorials, a company that makes gravestones for Jewish cemeteries in Houston, recalled getting a call a few years ago from a woman who wanted to buy a gravestone for her son’s grave. “We created a drawing, and I sent it to the synagogue for approval – but they wouldn’t approve it, because she didn’t finish paying for her cemetery plot,” she recounted.
In fact, it is easier to afford a gravestone, which costs about $2,000, than a plot in the cemetery that’s owned by Temple Emanu El in Houston. The Reform synagogue charges nonmembers more than $6,500 for a burial space.
“She didn’t have any money” to pay for a plot and the associated synagogue fees, Bell-Spencer said, though she did have enough for the gravestone. “She was upset because she couldn’t place a stone on her son’s grave.”
About every three years, Temple Emanu El purchases about 30 markers for unmarked graves in its cemetery, Bell-Spencer said. She describes these as “baby-marker-size stones” — 10 inches by 20 inches each.
In other states, too, it is not uncommon for graves in Jewish cemeteries to remain unmarked for years.
In Massachusetts, for instance, due to the impact of the 2008 recession, some families are only now marking the graves of those who died in 2010, said Judith Caplan, director of records and documentation at the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts.
What’s Wrong With This?
Gravestones are a long-standing Jewish tradition that goes back to the Bible. In the book of Genesis, for example, Jacob marked Rachel’s grave when she died by the side of the road.
Marking the exact spot where someone is buried is important because “if we stand 2 feet to the right, we might be praying at the wrong person’s grave,” said Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center, in Peabody, Massachusetts.
Gravestones are, in a sense, connected to what it means to be Jewish, said Reform and Reconstructionist rabbi Joe Blair, from Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“Part of what makes Jews — Jews is that we maintain memory,” he said.
In Judaism, it is customary to mark the grave in a timely manner — at most a year after a person dies, the rabbis said. If you wait years, “you’ve gone through several yahrzeits and you’ve ignored [the deceased],” Blair said.
There is also a tradition of equality in Jewish cemeteries.
The custom goes back to the practice of burying the dead in simple coffins and shrouds, which is based on the premise that “everyone should be buried the same so that the poor are not embarrassed,” Blair said.
“The same principle exists today,” he said.
Indeed, many of those who work in today’s funeral industry find inequality in the cemetery disturbing.
For Burger, it’s almost better to have no marker on the grave than to put only cheap stones on the graves of the poor.
“I know one thing — I wouldn’t want for someone to walk into a cemetery and think, ‘Those six graves — those were all poor people — you can tell because of the stone,’” she said.
Kaplan said he doesn’t like the idea of paupers’ cemeteries, which still exist in parts of the country today.
“It sounds to me like a ghetto,” he said. “Are [the poor] not fit enough to be buried in a normal Jewish cemetery?”
Why is it that in one of the richest countries on earth, traditional gravestones have become unattainable for so many people?
The issue is not so much the cost of the stones themselves — but that cemeteries and synagogues use them as a way to make sure they get paid for other funeral-related charges.
“It’s the only way we can police the loss of revenue to the Jewish Cemetery Association,” Kaplan said.
Another problem is that in cases in which synagogues own the cemeteries, the sale of cemetery plots is sometimes used to raise revenue for the synagogue, Kaplan added.
“Frankly, it’s all over the country,” Kaplan said. “I think that’s appalling.”
Encouraging cemeteries to be independent from synagogues is one way to address the problem, he suggested.
Others said that, above all, we should remember that we erect gravestones not only for those who are living today, but also for those who will come after — the generations of the future.
Burger understood this for herself when she found her great-great-grandfather’s name thanks to a photo that someone took of her great-grandfather’s gravestone in Poland. The great-grandfather’s tombstone had his father’s name written on it – providing information that no one in the family had.
“If there isn’t a stone, it doesn’t tell the story anymore,” she said. “I really hope people think about that when they make their marker today – because it really leaves a story for future generations.”