The emotional cost of burying a loved one can be overwhelming. But when a price tag upward of $8,000 for Jewish funeral expenses — the regional average, according to National Funeral Directors Association statistics — is added to that cost, the suffering can be exacerbated.
“People go into debt for funerals. They take out loans. They do some crazy things,” said David Zinner, a Columbia resident and vice president of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington.
“People are embarrassed to ask for a lower price,” said Zinner, whose organization negotiates contracts with Washington, D.C.-area funeral homes to ensure affordable Jewish burials. He has approached Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc., Baltimore’s only Jewish funeral home, as well, on several occasions.
While Talmudic laws can sometimes be open to debate and interpretation, said Zinner, who is also an instructor in Jewish funeral customs at the Gamliel Institute, laws about how Jews are to bury the deceased and how the community should support those in mourning are clearly stated. The laws are essential to ensure that the family of the deceased be cared for and protected in their time of need.
Funeral customs were dictated as a kind of great equalizer, with the same respectful and humble provisions precisely defined for both the wealthy and the poor, he explained. That includes detailed rituals, which are carried out by a community’s chevra kadisha, or burial society. Such services are directly enlisted by a funeral home and families or other organizations cover the costs.
Each society provides a shomer, or guard, to watch over the body until burial and performs the tahara, a ritual washing and then dressing of the deceased in a traditional simple shroud. Additionally, a Jew’s burial should include soil from Israel, a tradition to ensure all Diaspora Jews are “buried in Israel,” said Zinner. In total, these services can run about $400.
The wealth of simplicity means funerals should be both simple and affordable, Zinner asserted. But over time costs have only risen dramatically; the 1970 average of $708, according to the NFDA, has grown to more than 10 times that price today.
Zinner’s organization currently has contracts with Hines Rinaldi funeral home in the D.C. area and Cunningham Turch funeral home in Virginia to guarantee the base cost of a Jewish funeral for $1,850, compared to between $4,000 and $6,000 without the contract at other funeral homes.
“If you call up Hines Rinaldi and say, ‘I’m Jewish and I want the contract,’ you get it,” said Zinner.
To be clear, the base price only includes the transport of the deceased to a funeral home, refrigeration, provision for washing and dressing, completion of all necessary paperwork, professional services, a simple casket and transportation to a synagogue for the service and to the cemetery. The $1,850 does not include the purchase of a higher-end casket, should a family choose to purchase one, or the renting of limousines.
Cemetery costs are also additional, Zinner specified, which many people don’t realize. Opening and closing a grave can run from $400 to $2,000, liner vaults run anywhere from $400 to $5,000 and monument costs are on top of that, with prices that run from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
All roads lead to Levinson’s
One year ago this month, Levinson’s opened an office in Columbia to assist clients in that area. Though Zinner’s organization focuses on the Greater Washington area, as a member of Columbia Jewish Congregation, he’s met with Levinson’s “about once a year” in hopes of negotiating on behalf of fellow congregants living near the Baltimore area who might choose to use the funeral home.
“I think they do a great job of taking care of people, but I think their prices are way too high,” said Zinner.
Levinson’s base cost for a funeral is comparable to that charged by funeral homes in Washington for clients not requesting the Jewish burial negotiated price.
“It’s clear that they’re not interested in that [negotiated contract] model,” said Zinner. “It wouldn’t be in their interest to cut their own business.”
Still, Levinson’s, a family-run mainstay of the Baltimore Jewish community for more than 120 years, is dedicated to ensuring Jews in Baltimore are not limited by financial means when choosing a Jewish burial, said the firm’s vice president, Matt Levinson.
“We partner with the rabbis, the cemeteries [and] different organizations such as the [Hebrew Burial and Social Service Society of Maryland] for families that need assistance in providing a funeral,” said Levinson. “We’re here to help in any way we can.”
Levinson’s arranges between 800 and 900 funerals per year, with approximately 10 to 15 percent of those families receiving some type of financial assistance, either from Levinson’s directly or through other community organizations, he said. “We’ve never turned anyone down, and whatever we have to do to allow a family to have a proper Jewish funeral we will do.”
At Levinson’s, funeral arrangements start with basic services of 24-hour access to a funeral director, staff (about 25 full-time and 25 part-time) and overhead, listed at $2,255. It includes consultations with family members to discuss and arrange funeral details, coordination with clergy and cemeteries, filing notices with newspapers, the state and the Social Security Administration, obtaining certified copies of a death certificate and the transfer of loved ones in the middle of the night, if necessary.
Levinson’s also makes arrangements for shiva observance and will drop off chairs, prayer books and candles and then collect everything when the mourning period has concluded. It offers after-care resources as well, such as bereavement groups, seminars, lectures and a bereavement library.
“Just comprehensive service for whatever they need,” said its president, Ira Levinson.
Still, the total cost depends upon the options chosen by a family in mourning. Caskets at Levinson’s range from $775 to about $13,000. A graveside funeral
service costs $650, and a service in Levinson’s chapel or another facility runs $725. Interment services at the cemetery following a chapel service cost $325. Other in-house costs include refrigeration and sanitary care at $450 each and auto rentals, such as for transfer of the deceased to the funeral home ($450), hearse usage ($450) and if a limousine is requested for family members, another $335.
Monument purchase and foundation pouring are additional costs and can vary greatly. As in Washington, cemeteries carry their own charges too, such as to open, close and maintain a gravesite as well as the cost of the plot itself, which is most commonly purchased through a synagogue.
In that area of the industry, there are other options, one of which locally is Chevra Ahavas Chesed.
Founded in 1941 to assist new immigrants, Chevra Ahavas Chesed is a membership-based organization that arranges about 35 burials per year, said its president, Stan Hellman. The only nonmonetary requirement to join is to be Jewish.
After payment of an initiation fee, ranging from nothing to $1,500 based on the age of the oldest family member — substantially lesser fees apply for single individuals — an annual membership fee is collected of $45 per family or $25 per individual. This entitles each member to a plot in the Chevra Ahavas Chesed-owned cemetery on Liberty Road in Randallstown, nestled between Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion’s and Beth El Congregation’s cemeteries, as well as a traditional shroud and tahara services performed by the organization’s own chevra kadisha.
“We have people who belong to Glen Avenue [Ohel Yaakov Congregation] and Baltimore Hebrew and some don’t belong anywhere,” Hellman said of the nearly 1,100 people — 580 households — who make up the membership.
A big distinction of the organization, said Hellman, who has been involved with it since the 1970s, is “[synagogues] are in the retail cemetery plot business. We are not.”
Plot location is allocated in the order needed, with adjoining plot arrangements made available for couples. Two after-funeral costs are incurred: a perpetual care fee ($400 individual and $600 for a double plot) and a foundation pouring fee required to stabilize headstones, about $350 per site, paid to the monument company.
Upon a death, members are instructed to contact Levinson’s directly.
“We work very closely with Levinson’s,” said Hellman. “They keep marvelous records” that match up with the organization’s account of members’ plots, and “if a spouse died, they [already] know right where [the adjoining plot] is.”
Irma Pretsfelder, a Chevra Ahavas Chesed member who recently retired from serving in the women’s chevra kadisha for 30 years, said: “As far as I’m concerned [Levinson’s] is A-1. They’ve been so cooperative with everything.
“You make one phone call and that’s all,” added Pretsfelder, whose husband recently passed away. “You call Levinson’s. You don’t go pick out a box. They know exactly what the [organization] wants.”
Any other services rendered by Chevra Ahavas Chesed members are paid directly to the funeral home, but Hellman said if a family needs financial assistance the organization also maintains an emergency fund.
Another way a family might receive assistance is through the Hebrew Burial and Social Service Society of Maryland, for which Richard Friedlander is a board member and volunteer treasurer.
“All people work through Levinson’s,” said Friedlander. “I can’t be complimentary enough for the community service they provide with respect to never letting someone go without the ability to have a Jewish funeral.”
The Hebrew Burial and Social Service Society owns plots within the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation cemetery, including a “big acquisition” it made about 20 years ago. At no time “in the near term would we need to buy more,” said Friedlander.
The society relies on Levinson’s to identify families in need of assistance, he explained. “Levinson’s will turn to us and make arrangements via our available lots.”
Matt Levinson said such assistance is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Friedlander’s society draws funds from its endowment and receives donations as well. In addition to providing a plot, it covers all expenses with respect to a burial, including a modest marker and headstone. It serves between six and 18 clients per year, said Friedlander.
Over at Jewish Community Services, Karen Nettler, the director of community connections, said that clients get sent to Levinson’s, as well. Whether or not they receive financial assistance is a decision left to the funeral home.
“The issue sometimes is that people have an [unrealistic] expectation for a funeral,” she explained, “that is above and beyond the free burial that will be provided for them.”
Heather Norris contributed to this article.