Cemeteries will no longer be able to deny burial for people who pass away in time for a daytime interment if a bill proposed in the New York State Senate passes into law, potentially removing a major impediment that has long vexed chevrah kaddisha groups.
State Sen. Simcha Felder introduced the legislation Tuesday after a group of chevrah kaddisha heads told him in a meeting a few weeks ago that currently, someone who dies after 11:00 a.m. cannot be interred until the next day. That means that if a Jewish person dies on an Erev Shabbos or Erev Yom Tov and wants to be buried in New York state, they can sometimes have to wait for burial as long as two or three days.
“This is a major issue,” Rabbi Yochonon Goldberger of the Shomrei Hachomos chapel in Boro Park told Hamodia.
Rabbi Goldberger explained that, aside from the Torah precept of burying as soon as possible, it also allows the family to cut the shivah by a day. In running the Chevra Nachalas Beis Aharon V’Yisroel of Karlin Stolin, he said they use the beis hachaim in Deans, N.J., for this reason.
“We have our chelka because it’s [owned by] a Jewish person; he allows burials until almost midnight,” he said.
Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the Republican majority, said that the bill will right a wrong that has long been festering among Jewish burial societies.
“Countless New Yorkers adhere to a belief system which requires same-day interment for the deceased,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “This legislation is about redressing a grievance for these citizens and allowing grief-stricken mourners to begin the healing process in a timely way.”
The bill, Felder said, would not cost any money since families would have to pay extra if any overtime is involved. But it is opposed by the cemetery diggers’ union and some of New York’s largest cemeteries, who have routinely denied burials when notification came after 9 or 10 a.m. with the claim that they were too busy.
Rabbi Eliezer Spira, a member of the Belzer chevrah kaddisha in Boro Park, said that the union claims did not make sense.
“If somebody dies at 11 o’clock, we could have a full burial done by 4 o’clock, completely, fully,” he said. “Any chevrah kaddisha could do it.” Union workers leave at 4 p.m., and are entitled to an hour’s lunch break.
The provisions of Felder’s bill state that cemeteries must be notified at least two hours prior to burial, and the deceased must be brought there at least a half hour before sundown. If a cemetery is unable to perform the burial, it must provide written justification explaining its inability to do so.
Rabbi Spira, who participated at the meeting in Felder’s office, said that an incident occurred recently, when a person was niftar on Erev Sukkos. The family wanted to bury him before Yom Tov, which would allow them to sit shivah for an hour, sparing them the weeklong shivah. But the cemetery refused to bury him until elected officials got involved.
“We can’t call elected officials for every levayah,” he noted.
But the outrage that spurred the legislation came this past Chol Hamoed Pesach, when a close friend of Rabbi Spira’s, a respected maggid shiur in his shul, was niftar at 11 a.m. Kevurah had to be postponed until the following day since the cemetery where he was to be buried refused to arrange for a grave opening even though sunset was eight hours later.
“It is unconscionable and unfair to cause needless suffering to the grieving family members who are struggling to come to terms with their loss and are looking for closure,” Rabbi Spira said, praising Felder for the bill. “In other states, funerals can be conducted promptly and New York should also afford this same kind of protection to its residents.”
In neighboring New Jersey, such as in the Deans beis hachaim where many kehillos have chelkas, burials are conducted at any hour for an additional fee.
Felder said that at the meeting, in which eight chevrah kaddishas — the majority of New York state’s chevrah kaddishas — were present, he was told that such circumstances occur frequently enough to justify legislation.
Felder told Hamodia that Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) “is aware” of the legislation, and that he will begin circulating the bill for cosponsors this week. He said that he already has a commitment from a prominent member of the Assembly’s Democratic majority to introduce it in that chamber.
The history behind the bill is long and deep.
The first crack at making New York cemeteries more amenable for Jews was in the 1970s. Mendy Shayowitz, a deputy to Gov. Hugh Carey, arranged for a law barring cemeteries from remaining closed more than one day at a time. Before that bill passed, cemeteries would routinely allow three days to pass before opening a grave, postponing burials until after weekends and holidays.
The first time a grave was opened in New York state for a death after 11:00 a.m. came in 1997, when Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, was niftar. The cemetery’s refusal to open a grave came to an abrupt halt when then-Gov. George Pataki personally called the cemetery and pressured them to make an exception.
About that time, state Sen. Seymour Lachman, who represented heavily Jewish areas of Brooklyn, held hearings on the issue. But no legislation was introduced; chevrah kaddisha groups regularly informed grieving families that their wishes for immediate burial would likely not happen.
One avenue that is available to the chevrah kaddisha in extenuating cases, a source told Hamodia, is Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, who heads the Vaad Harabonim of Queens’s chevrah kaddisha. He has a close association with the state’s top cemetery regulator, Division of Cemeteries director Richard Fishman, and cemetery officials will usually accede to his request for immediate burial if he asks them.