Weeding and litter removal is a perpetual uphill battle around loved ones’ gravesites.
Courtney Shafer has a thankless job. She spends her work week caring for the grounds at Hebrew Memorial Park, yet all she’s likely to hear from visitors are complaints: There are weeds around my mother’s grave; there’s litter on the grounds.
Barbara Kohler of West Bloomfield is one of those dissatisfied visitors.
“I was there on Father’s Day and I was very upset at how it looked,” said Kohler, whose father, Aaron Friedman, died in 2012; her mother, Dolly Friedman, passed in 2013. Kohler said their graves were surrounded by numerous weeds. She documented through photographs other gravesites in need of weeding as well as graves with neglected water bottles.
This summer has been particularly bad for weeds, said Shafer, part of a grounds crew of 18 who maintain the cemetery at 14 Mile and Gratiot in Clinton Township.
With 26,000 graves (11,000 without perpetual care), Hebrew Memorial is the largest of the Detroit area’s Jewish cemeteries.
Every day, Shafer and her colleagues move through the cemetery pulling weeds and piling them at the nearest roadside, where they’re picked up by the tractor crew, which also handles the mowing.
In addition to the weeds, they have to contend with trash that blows in from the busy Gratiot Avenue commercial strip nearby. Sometimes visitors themselves leave trash, Shafer said.
“My attitude is if my parents were buried here, I’d want it to look nice, so I do my best,” she said.
“We can’t do everything instantaneously,” said Rabbi Boruch Levin, executive director of the Hebrew Benevolent Society. The society operates the Hebrew Memorial Park and several smaller cemeteries.
If people visit in spring, their loved one’s grave may not be yet planted with flowers. Fighting weeds is an ongoing battle, and it takes about a month for the workers to get through the entire cemetery. By the time the grounds crew makes its way through the entire property and starts over, the first section is full of weeds again.
Steven Schooler of Royal Oak, who has family members buried at Hebrew Memorial, has another complaint: The ground above his loved one’s graves is sinking.
Cemetery administrators say weeds and subsidence are both to be expected.
“Each cemetery has its own challenges, but there’s not a cemetery in the city that hasn’t had people complain,” said Ralph Zuckman, executive director of Clover Hill Park Cemetery in Birmingham and current president of the Greater Detroit Jewish Cemetery Association.
“People are emotional when they visit a cemetery, and they’re concerned about their one small area,” he said.
Subsidence is natural because cemeteries change the typography of the earth, Zuckman said. “You’re digging holes and filling them back up,” he said, creating pockets that cause the earth to shift.
The phenomenon is more pronounced in Jewish cemeteries, because traditionally Jews are buried without embalming, in wooden caskets and without cement vaults, making decomposition more rapid. In any cemetery, it’s easy to see undulations in the earth, he said, and it shouldn’t reflect badly on the cemetery.
“I had an open grave once and water seeped into it,” Zuckman said. “The rabbi was annoyed. ‘Who put it there?’ he said. ‘HaShem put it there!’ is what I told him.”
Hebrew Memorial Park has a tougher maintenance problem than the other cemeteries because all its graves are marked with stone frames to prevent people from walking on them or mowing over them, Levin said.
It’s much easier to maintain a cemetery like Oakview in Royal Oak, and some sections of Beth El Memorial Park in Livonia, where all the grave markers are flush with the ground.
Almost 70 percent of Hebrew Memorial’s graves are planted with flowers, thanks to family members who made a one-time payment for “perpetual care” or who pay annually for the service. But signing up for flowers is not always a matter of money; many Orthodox families prefer not to have flowers on their loved ones’ graves, he said.
The graves without flowers attract weeds more quickly.
Jewish law has much to say about death and mourning but very little to say about cemetery maintenance. There is a tradition of respect for the dead, but there’s no clear definition of what that means after burial, Levin said.
Jewish graves should be marked so that people will recognize them and not desecrate them, he said. Jewish graves may not be disturbed or moved.
The first mention of a Jewish burial is in Genesis, Chapter 23, when Abraham buys a cave in which to bury his wife, Sarah.
In Talmudic times, many families buried their dead on their own property in family graveyards, says an article by Rabbi Sefton Temkin in Encyclopedia Judaica.
Soon after Jews settled in the New World, they realized they needed a cemetery. In 1656, the governors of New Amsterdam, which became New York City, granted land to Congregation Shearith Israel for burial site. By 1776, congregations in Newport, R.I., Philadelphia and Charleston, S.C., had also established cemeteries.
American Jewish cemetery practices tend to follow those of the Christian culture, Zuckman said. Just as gentile burials moved from family plots and churchyards to large “memorial parks,” so did Jewish cemeteries grow from small properties maintained by congregations or landsmanshaften (organizations of immigrants from the same European town or village) to large enterprises.
Some cemeteries continue to be associated with congregations, including Adat Shalom Memorial Park in Livonia; Clover Hill Park, which is run by Congregation Shaarey Zedek; Beth El Memorial Park in Livonia, which serves the area’s other Reform and Humanistic temples; Beth Abraham Cemetery, which is run by Congregation Beth Ahm; and Oakview, which is affiliated with Congregation B’nai Moshe. The others are administered independently. A few Jewish cemeteries, including Oakview, are defined sections within larger cemeteries.
Flowers on graves are a recent phenomenon, rarely seen in Jewish cemeteries in Europe and Israel.
The idea behind “perpetual care” is that the cemetery administrators will invest much of the fee paid at the time of burial in an endowment or trust fund that can be used for grave maintenance in the future.
The fees for burials without perpetual care cover basic maintenance, with no flowers or other plantings.
At Detroit-area cemeteries, the cost of a burial plot with perpetual care ranges from $4,500 to close to $6,000. That’s a bargain compared to California, where prime cemetery plots are selling for as much as $25,000, Zuckman said.
All the Detroit-area cemeteries are willing to accommodate families who cannot afford the standard fee, he said.
Hebrew Memorial, in particular, is known for helping the indigent. The organization began in 1916 as the Jewish Free Burial Association.
The major threats facing cemeteries are the declining Jewish population, rising maintenance costs and the increasing prevalence of cremation, said Zuckman, which is now the choice in more than 50 percent of non-Jewish deaths.
Just as Jewish families followed Christian burial customs in planting flowers on graves, so more families are requesting cremation, even though it is strictly forbidden by Jewish law and frowned upon by Jewish custom.
Two of the Detroit area’s three Jewish funeral homes, Ira Kaufman Chapel and Dorfman Funeral Chapel, will handle cremations; Hebrew Memorial Chapel will not.
As the number of cremations rises and the number of burials decreases, cemeteries have less money to invest for maintenance.
Paying for perpetual care is no guarantee a grave will be maintained forever; in almost every case, the remains will outlast the institution that started the cemetery.
“Perpetuity is a long time,” Zuckman joked.
Across the country, Jewish communities are facing the challenge of caring for old cemeteries whose founding organizations have declined or disappeared, said Zuckman, who is a board member and past president of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America.
Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati was incorporated in 2004 to manage all of the area’s Jewish cemeteries. The project was funded by the combined endowments of the individual cemeteries and a grant from the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati.
In Cleveland, the Jewish Federation is in the midst of a $3.5 million Cemetery Preservation Campaign to maintain cemeteries in areas where Jews no longer live and synagogues no longer exist. The Commission on Jewish Cemetery Preservation manages six of the city’s 16 Jewish cemeteries as well as one of the three Jewish sections in other cemeteries.
In Massachusetts, 115 of the state’s 209 Jewish cemeteries are owned and operated by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, which gets financial support from the local federation.
No one knows exactly how many Jewish cemeteries there are in the Detroit area.
Over time, many of the smaller cemeteries started by landsmanshaften and now-defunct congregations and organizations were taken over by the Hebrew Memorial Society, but some were left to languish.
Clover Hill Park has guardianship of Beth Olam Cemetery, which is located on the grounds of the General Motors Poletown Plant and has graves dating back to 1848. It is open to the public twice a year, on the days before Rosh Hashanah and Passover.
A nonprofit organization, Friends of B’nai David Cemetery, was formed last year to care for an abandoned cemetery near Detroit City Airport that had been totally overgrown. The organization makes sure the grass is cut and opens the cemetery to visitors a few times a year.
By Barbra Lewis, JN Contributing Writer
Bedecked In Begonias
Visit any of the large Jewish cemeteries in the Detroit area and you’ll see waves and waves of begonias bedecking the graves of people whose loved ones paid for “perpetual care.”
There’s nothing particularly Jewish about begonias, but planting them as the flower of choice has become a minhag — custom — in the Detroit cemetery business, said Ralph Zuckman, executive director of Clover Hill Park Cemetery in Birmingham and head of the Greater Detroit Jewish Cemetery Association.
Machpelah Cemetery in Ferndale is the outlier. Most of its planted graves are festooned with perennials, including pink sedum and daylilies.
Begonias grow in a neat fashion, are less susceptible to heat than many other annuals and are easy to maintain, Zuckman said. “They’re a good choice for the Michigan climate.”
But perennials are less expensive than annuals like begonias because they don’t have to be pulled up in the fall and replanted in the spring.
Zuckman predicted that more cemeteries will eventually move to perennial plantings as a cost-saving measure.
A Memorial To The Children Of Our Dreams
In Jewish law and tradition, a child who is miscarried, stillborn or who lives less than 30 days is not considered viable, and the family does not go through the usual funeral and mourning practices. They don’t hold a formal funeral, rend their garments, sit shivah or recite kaddish.
But the deceased infant is still worthy of respect and the remains are buried with care in a Jewish cemetery.
Since its founding in 1916, Hebrew Memorial Park in Clinton Township has buried hundreds of infants in a separate children’s section. The cemetery does not charge for the service.
The tiny graves are marked by concrete frames — like those around the adult graves but much smaller — to prevent visitors from accidently desecrating them. But few have stones or other markers.
Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel said last spring she heard from a congregant and her husband who visited their son’s grave in the children’s section and were upset that the grounds looked unkempt.
The rabbi rounded up a group of 25 volunteers who visited the cemetery in July and spent several hours pulling weeds, laying down fresh soil and planting flowers.
Hebrew Memorial Park donated the gloves, gardening tools, soil and flowers as well as water for the workers, said Otto Dube, funeral director at Hebrew Memorial Chapel in Oak Park.
The group unveiled a new monument — the first in the children’s section — erected by Hebrew Memorial Park. The inscription on the marker, in English and in Hebrew, reads, “Children of Our Dreams — You passed through to your world untainted by sin, so young, so pure.”
Kaluzny said, “Everyone there found the cleanup profoundly moving and meaningful, and asked before they even left when we could continue.”
She said she is working with Hebrew Memorial Chapel on another Temple Israel cleanup date in October, but some of the volunteers have already returned on their own.
“I also have family buried in that section from my husband’s side,” she said. “A few of the volunteers had family members there, and it meant so much to them to be able to beautify their final resting place.”
— Barbara Lewis