Never before have I published in this column the kind of attack you are about to read. It is on a corporation known as SCI, the largest owner and operator of funeral homes and cemeteries in the country. Over the last ten years or more, SCI has been quietly buying independent mortuaries and cemeteries and putting them under their corporate banner, not to mention their corporate practices. At the moment, they own Danzansky-Goldberg, Edward Sagel Funeral Home and King David Memorial Gardens, as well as a host of such institutions which are not historically Jewish.
There are two philosophies of business - one emphasizes service, the other emphasizes profit. They are not mutually exclusive, though each of us knows of people who can't seem to bridge the gap. Service-only approaches create good will and bad debt. Profit-only approaches make the owners wealthy and the customers miserable. Judging from the experiences of our members (and me) with King David cemetery over these years of SCI ownership, there must be some very wealthy people at the top of the corporate ladder.
New management has not brought new efficiency. King David is a part of National Memorial Park and shares in its grounds crew. That crew is now deemed more efficient which means, of course, it is smaller. Burials are scheduled according to the availability of a crew to open and close a grave. Since non-Jews schedule burials as much as a week after a death, there are relatively few opportunities for burial within 24 or 48 hours as our tradition demands. The last three times I have had burials at King David, I was encouraged to postpone another day when slots were more available, if I did not want the take-it-or-leave-it times I was given.
King David was never the bastion of customer-friendly policies, but those of you who purchased plots there would do well to review your arrangements before, as they say in those precincts, “the need arises.” An onerous requirement of SCI is the site visit. Before the company will open a grave, an authorized family member must visit the actual site, point to the plot and sign an agreement. The company claims self-protection - too many times they have had to disinter someone buried in a disputed plot. (Consider the irony - it is a company representative who shows the bereaved survivor a grave site, as if the mourner will recognize an 18-foot square of grass in an open field.) And what happens if a death occurs on Friday, with a burial Sunday morning? The family is required to come out on Shabbat to point and sign.
I discussed this problem with a (Jewish) King David manager. He offered to consider a better arrangement in exchange for access to our membership list. I refused, of course. In fairness to him, he did offer to waive the requirement if I informed the cemetery that the surviving kin was infirm (and would guarantee no later site dispute). I asked that the cemetery pro-actively contact all of its customers and require them to make a pre-need site visit. He refused, of course. When I said I would then encourage people to look elsewhere for their burial needs, he responded, “in that case, nobody will get a waiver from the site visit at the time of need.”
There are plenty of other stories to tell, but you get the picture. Ironically, I have never met more compassionate or cooperative people than the grounds workers at King David. Above that rung on the corporate ladder, the milk of human kindness curdles quickly.
What can you do? Nothing. If you contracted with King David in pre-SCI days, if you have a loved one in a family plot, if you purchased a plot under an SCI promotion, you are stuck. But it would not hurt to ask questions - a lot of questions - and get everything in writing before you are faced with immediate decisions. Take nothing for granted, including, as we recently discovered, the availability of seating at graveside for the infirm or disabled.
I never met a poor Jewish funeral home owner. I also never met one who wasn't generous, compassionate and mostly respectful of tradition. They lived within the community they served and had a stake in upholding the values and standards of their people. It is a pretty fair bet that few, if any, of them have the ear of the management of SCI.