Jewish groups slam Mt. Carmel practices 1

Councilwoman Lynn Schulman, center, joined rally organizers outside Mt. Carmel Cemetery on Sunday.

Several members of the Queens Jewish community participated in a rally last Sunday over what they believe to be an impasse with management of Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Glendale over a number of issues involving maintenance and religious propriety.

Steven Saphirstein, a member of the All Bukharian Community Network, told the Chronicle that things like sinking graves and toppling headstones have become a serious issue; and that Mt. Carmel in some cases is disregarding Jewish religious law and custom in dealing with it.

Renate Namias, general manager of the cemetery, said their service to the Jewish community goes back well over a century and that an engineer and state regulators have approved of their approach.

And with cemeteries being regulated by the state, state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) and Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) are sponsoring companion legislation to tighten up some requirements on cemetery corporations, especially when it comes to those dealing with religious requirements for burials.

Saphirstein told the Chronicle approximately 100 graves are sinking or have foundation issues. Namias said the number is not correct but declined to be more specific.

“The graves are basically sinking, both the granite headstone and the piece in front that covers the entire plot,” Saphirstein said. The stone over the grave, he said, normally rises about 12 inches above ground level but that some have sunk to as little as three. He sent photos of headstones that have broken upon topping over.

“The issue of Jewish law is when they want to fix these lots that have fallen through, the cemetery in certain cases has used a metal plate,” he said. “In Jewish law, you can’t have any metal near the remains.”

Saphirstein said an alternative offered by the cemetery involves exhumation, which also is not done under Jewish custom.

“And there are other methods we’ve showed them,” he said. “There are different things we’ve brought to their attention, and they haven’t even entertained the ideas.”

He also raised the issue of the extent to which Mt. Carmel uses large pieces of heavy equipment on-site.

Namias, reading from a prepared statement, defended the cemetery and its practices.

“Mount Carmel has been serving the Jewish community since 1903, and the Bukharian community for over 35 years,” she said. “The cemetery has always had an excellent relationship with the leaders of the community and they do still continue to support us”

Namias said they have engaged in a number of discussions with the Bukharian community in the last two years about cemetery operations, including how they prepare foundations for grave sites.

“Now if a monument needs to be reset in the cemetery, it’s always been our policy that we recap all foundations at no charge to the families,” she continued. “However, that as a result of these discussions, we did retain the services of a structural engineer to review our procedures, and we also had a representative from the Division of Cemeteries, a state regulatory agency, to the cemetery. In both cases, they approved our procedures.”

Saphirstein said there also has been an issue with the cemetery not being open evenings, which he said is necessary due to the Jewish practice of burying the deceased within 24 hours of death.

Among the provisions of the Addabbo-Hevesi legislation is that cemetery corporations keep the grounds open outside of normal business hours “in the case of persons belonging to a religious and/or ethnic tradition” that requires quick burials; but also allows the cemetery to charge for the additional costs incurred outside regular hours.

It also would call for the appointment of inspectors for cemeteries catering all or in part to communities and religions to assure that the cemetery is in keeping with applicable religious laws and traditions.