No peace for some at Shalom Memorial Park

Posted: July 15, 2014

THE LIMOUSINE was waiting outside on the morning of the funeral. But someone from Shalom Memorial Park was on the phone, telling Susan Helfand that the problem with her mother's burial plot had not been resolved.

Edith W. Taylor, who died Oct. 23, 2010, was supposed to be buried between her husband and son at the Huntingdon Valley cemetery, just over the Northeast Philadelphia border. The family had prepaid for the plot.

On the night before the funeral, Shalom told Helfand that there was no room, she said. They were considering digging up bodies to make space, according to Helfand.

"They wanted to move my father over, but there was somebody on the other side of him and they would have to get permission from that other family, or a court order, and there wasn't time," Helfand said. "I told them we can't postpone the funeral."

The next morning, as Helfand was about to leave for the funeral home, a cemetery staffer called again and asked about the possibility of keeping Taylor aboveground for a time, until they could move another grave.

Helfand couldn't believe what was happening.

"It was ridiculous," she said. "People are telling me the limo is waiting, and I'm talking to Shalom trying to figure out how they are going to bury my mother.

"It was indescribable."

Shalom eventually told them the service would have to take place a few hundred feet away from the actual burial site, where they said they would lower Helfand's father deeper into the ground, then bury her mother on top.

"We really had no choice," she said. "It didn't make any sense, but we felt as if there was nothing we could do. The whole thing just seemed bizarre."

Bizarre, but apparently not an isolated occurrence for Service Corporation International, the massive death-services company that describes itself as the largest in North America. It owns 1,644 funeral homes and 514 cemeteries, including Shalom Memorial Park and nine other funeral homes or cemeteries in the Philly area.

The Houston-based company, which does business as Dignity Memorial and generates about $3 billion a year in revenue, has been accused in lawsuits in other states of ripping off bereaved families, overselling plots, breaking open caskets and dumping bones. SCI has paid out eight-figure settlements to make the lawsuits go away, but allegations of horrendous cemetery management continue.

Now the company is facing a lawsuit in Philadelphia that could become a class-action case on behalf of families with relatives buried at Shalom Memorial Park, a mostly Jewish cemetery where U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. Leon Sacks are among the notable Philadelphians buried.

Dozens of people have come forward in recent weeks, mostly Russian Jews in Northeast Philly, alleging that SCI has oversold plots, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys.

"I want to make them realize they can't keep doing this. It's unconscionable," said Helfand, who now lives in Illinois and expects to join the lawsuit if the judge certifies it as a class action.

Familiar complaints

The lead plaintiff in the Philadelphia case is Maya Devinskaya, 73, a widow whose daughter Ella Kukava, 42, died last year. Devinskaya, who lives on Social Security, didn't have enough money to buy a burial plot for her daughter, so she traded her own prepaid plot next to her husband for a different one for Ella elsewhere in the cemetery.

But cemetery staff buried Devinskaya's daughter in a plot that overlapped an occupied one, according to the lawsuit filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court in May.

"When people purchase a plot, their expectation is that they were going to be able to bury their loved one," said Stephen DeNittis, of the DeNittis Osefchen law firm, which filed the suit with the Bochetto & Lentz law firm.

"At no point were they told there could be other coffins encroaching on their loved ones or, worse yet, more than one person buried in the same plot."

Shalom is asking Devinskaya, who is Jewish, for permission to dig up her daughter and move her elsewhere. Disinterment is generally frowned upon by Jewish tradition.

"It's a mess out here," Devinskaya's daughter-in-law, Inna Devinsky, said during a recent visit to Kukava's grave site.

The family had planned to hold a ceremony to place the headstone at Kukava's grave last month on the first anniversary of her death, but they couldn't because they don't know if she will have to be moved. The cemetery and the family also are at odds about where Kukava actually is buried.

"They are all together," Devinsky said in broken English as she pointed to Kukava's plot and another grave site that is adjacent to it and possibly overlapping.

Marina Pusan, a nurse's aide, visited the cemetery last summer, about a month after her mother died and was buried there. Her mother had purchased a second plot for Pusan, but Pusan noticed that someone else appeared to have been buried there. Pusan said a cemetery staffer blew her off.

"I asked who was laid to rest there and she told me it's none of my business. I said I don't care who is next to my mom, I was just wondering if I still have a place," Pusan said. "When it comes my time, I'm not going to be next to my mom?"

Pusan isn't sure what will happen when she dies, and wasn't able to get a clear answer.

"They said, 'When it's your time, we're going to put you in,' " Pusan said. "I have no idea where they're going to put me. It seems like kind of a joke."

SCI spokeswoman Jessica McDunn declined to comment on the Philadelphia lawsuit, but said that Shalom has "detailed policies and procedures relating to the development and spacing of graves, the identification of graves and the burial process."

"We value our relationships with our client families and invite them to contact us if they have any concerns about the burials of their loved ones," McDunn said.

'Pretty much the worst'

As publicly traded SCI continues to expand, the complaints continue to roll in at the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a consumer-rights group. Everything from double-selling plots to using high-pressure sales techniques.

"SCI has been, for almost two decades, just pretty much the worst player in the funeral industry," said Joshua Slocum, the alliance's executive director.

"They've gobbled up these funeral homes and cemeteries around the country and just see them as cash cows. You're finding graves that have been sold to two families, or people buried in wrong graves because they're trying to milk as much profit as they can out of every single acre."

In February, SCI settled a class-action lawsuit in California for $80 million. Plaintiffs' lawyers had alleged that staffers at an SCI-owned Jewish cemetery repeatedly desecrated graves and mishandled human remains.

SCI also has settled lawsuits in Florida for $14 million and $100 million. State authorities in Massachusetts have disciplined an SCI-owned Jewish funeral home for allegedly mixing up bodies, then digging them up and reburying them without promptly telling their families.

Industry regulation is virtually nonexistent, especially in Pennsylvania, Slocum said. Paying out millions of dollars in settlements doesn't seem to have changed SCI's ways, either, he said.

"They seem to treat this as the cost of doing business. They don't give a s--- until they've been hurt, and they haven't been hurt enough," Slocum said. "It would be nice if they got slapped hard enough that they had to commit to changing their internal practices."


On Twitter: @wbender99

Blog: ph.ly/DailyDelco

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